Expert Commentary

The iPhone effect: Social interactions and a constant state of “poly-consciousness”

2014 study in the journal Environment and Behavior showing how the mere presence of mobile devices can influence the quality of human interactions.

As smart devices have evolved and improved, their popularity has increased rapidly. According to a Pew Internet report, more than half of all adults in the United States owned a smartphone in 2013, a 21% increase from 2011.

The prevalence of smart devices introduces a wide array of concurrent activities into daily life, creating possibilities for personal efficiency and increased connection but also potentially leading to a culture of distraction. Multitasking has been shown to impact numerous cognitive abilities and tasks, including driving ability, memory and academic performance. What’s more, the proliferation of technology has changed the way in which many people socialize. Smart devices connect us to a wider network of friends and contacts, but these expanded networks may include more superficial relationships — “weak ties,” as network researchers say — rather than traditional, deeper ties.

Social scientists have long been studying the effects of mental overload and divided attention, as well as the phenomenon of wider, more dispersed social networks. Our digitally mediated world may seem to present novel problems, but research in this area is in fact an extension of a longstanding literature on these issues. (John Sweller’s 1988 paper on “cognitive load,” for example, has been cited thousands of times, while researchers such as Barry Wellman have been studying networks and societal change long before the Web’s rise.) Some of the newer research, such as that pioneered by Clifford Nass, has focused directly on the specific cognitive consequences of engaging with digital technology, while other scholars such as Sherry Turkle have examined social and personal implications.

A 2014 study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices,” looks to integrate both the cognitive and sociological research strands relating to this issue. The authors — Shalini Misra, Jamie Genevie, and Miao Yuan of Virginia Tech and Lulu Cheng of Monsanto — examined the relationship between the presence of mobile devices during social interactions and the overall quality of those interactions. To do so, 100 pairs of individuals with an existing relationship were randomly assigned to discuss either trivial matters or a topic of significance for 10 minutes at a coffee shop or cafe, as they were observed from an unobtrusive distance. The authors then observed whether a mobile device was used, touched or placed on the table during the conversation. After 10 minutes, participants completed a brief survey to assess the degree of connectedness and empathetic concern that they felt during their interaction.

The study’s findings include:

  • Out of 100 pairs, 29 had mobile phones present during their conversations, while 71 did not. Overall, conversations without phones present were rated significantly better than those with phones present, controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and mood. Those who conversed without a mobile phone present reported a higher level of connectedness.
  • Those who conversed in the absence of a mobile device felt a greater level of empathy for their partner. Additionally, those pairs with a close relationship reported lower levels of empathy with a mobile device present as compared to pairs with a more casual relationship.
  • The study did not find any significant effect of mobile phones during more meaningful conversations, as compared to more casual encounters.

“Even when they are not in active use or buzzing, beeping, ringing, or flashing, [digital devices] are representative of people’s wider social network and a portal to an immense compendium of information,” the researchers note. “In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds. Their mere presence in a socio-physical milieu, therefore, has the potential to divide consciousness between the proximate and immediate setting and the physically distant and invisible networks and contexts. The permeable and fluid pervasive computing environments of our technological society and the array of behavioral demands they create thus dramatically change the socio-physical context of face-to-face communication. In these permeable and micro-fragmented contexts, we are in a constant state of poly-consciousness in which multiple relationships and settings can be the focus of one’s attention at any given time regardless of location or context.”

Related research: A 2014 research roundup “Multitasking, Social Media and Distraction,” examines various issues in this area.


Keywords: cognition, technology

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