Leiden Psychology Blog

A smartphone induced brain-drain

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A smartphone induced brain-drain

Smartphones enrich our lives. But they may also monopolize some of our mental resources when we need them most, without us even realizing!

Smartphones enrich our lives; they connect us with others and with social media platforms. Many people take their phones everywhere they go and keep close track of every new notification. However, a recent study conducted in Texas shows that literally putting some distance between yourself and your phone improves performance on challenging tasks.

The experiment
In this study, adult participants were required to perform challenging working-memory and problem-solving tasks. They were assigned to one of three experimental conditions, in which they placed their phone either 1) in sight, on their desk; 2) out of sight but close by, in their pocket or bag; or 3) in another room. Strikingly, participants whose phones were out of sight in another room performed best on the tasks, and those participants who had their phone in sight on their desk performed worst, even when the phone was face down or turned off. These results show that the presence of your smartphone may make it harder to execute a difficult mental task well.

Smartphone induced brain-drain
This effect can be explained by the idea that people have limited mental resources available at a specific moment in time. So when the participants from the study performed the tasks with their phones in sight, some of their available mental resources got distracted from the task and drawn towards their phones, resulting in suboptimal performance. This could happen in real life, for example, when you are working on a report for work, or doing homework. You need to focus fully on the task to be able to work accurately and fast. However, if your phone is near, some of your attention may implicitly be drawn towards your phone. This makes it more difficult for you to do your work effectively, because you have less attention left for it. The researchers from the study refer to this as a “smartphone induced brain-drain”. The process is an unconscious one, given that the participants reported that they had not thought about their phones during the experiment.

Put your phone away - in a different room
The researchers also found that some individuals were more susceptible to smartphone induced brain-drain than others. Participants who were most dependent on their smartphones were most affected by the phone’s location: they performed worse when their phone was in sight on the desk, and also benefited most (i.e., performed best) from their phone being in another room during the experiment. So it might be worth putting away your phone when you need all of your brain capacity, especially if you suspect you have some signs of smartphone addiction.

Be aware of the mental drainage
These findings shed an interesting light on the impact of smartphones on our daily functioning at work, school, and home. New questions can be raised, like how smartphones may affect other types of complex situations, such as face-to-face social interactions, which also require advanced social mental skills. And do these findings also apply to younger individuals like teenagers? All in all, we should embrace the advantages smartphones bring to our everyday lives, but we should also be aware of the mental drainage they may trigger.


Posted by Lisa on December 22, 2017 at 15:25

Dear Kees,
Thank you for your critical note. I agree with you that we should not start worrying right away. I hope that the conclusion people take from this blog is that we should become more aware of the so-called brain drain smartphones may trigger, even when they are turned off. I think that an important strength of this study is that the primary results are replicated in a second independent sample. Furthermore, I think that the most important results come from study 2, in which it is shown that there is an interaction between smartphone dependence and phone location on task performance, which stresses the important role of individual differences, i.e., who is most likely to be affected by the smartphone location? I am intrigued by this finding, because, although I found the experiment set-up quite elegant, it is found in a very simple lab setting. As I mention in the concluding paragraph of the blog, it got me wondering how the findings of this study could be translated to other settings. For example, how will ‘smartphone location’ affect the execution of other types of tasks, for example tasks without any time restrictions and without the idea that it would be inappropriate to reach for your phone (which is perhaps more representative for a real life setting). Also, maybe in future studies, researchers could develop or make use of more sensitive measures to measure a “brain drain”, perhaps some measure for “energy used” to do the task, or how much mental load people can handle (these are just some ideas). I am still very curious what future studies will teach us! Although I hope we can avoid that zombie apocalypse.

Kees Verduin
Posted by Kees Verduin on December 20, 2017 at 18:53

Dear Lisa,
thank you for sharing this information about the impact of mobile devices on how we function. After reading the article however my initial fears were somewhat diminished, as the primary reason for finding these results appear to be the very large sample sizes that were used in both experiments (520 and 270 subjects). The reported effect sizes (partial eta squared) never exceed .03 indicating that most effects were small (ish). Therefore yes, the reported effects are statistically significant but I am not convinced that we should start worrying right away. Although the first mentally drained mobile zombie may already be out there. If I have overlooked something feel free to educate me.

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