Smartphones Make Us Dumber
A recent study drew a correlation between smartphone proximity and cognitive ability. (Short version: We are dumber when the phone is nearby.)

A new study reinforced the hypothesis that the proximity of a smartphone owner’s mobile device can affect his or her cognitive ability.

Marketing and management researchers from the University of California-San Diego, the University of Texas-Austin and Disney Research conducted a series of problem-solving experiments with 520 college students. The study was published by the University of Chicago Press in the April 2017 edition of the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

“In this research, we test the ‘brain drain’ hypothesis that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance,” the study’s authors wrote in the abstract. “Results from two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention – as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones – the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity.”

Some students were instructed to leave their smartphones in another room. A second group was instructed to keep their smartphones nearby, but stored in a pocket or purse. A third group was instructed to keep their smartphones on the table, near at hand.

The proximity of the smartphones had a direct bearing on the average scores of the three groups.

Those with their phones within sight and easy reach scored worst.

Those with their phones stored out of sight, but nearby, scored second-worst.

Those with their phones stored in another room scored best.

In addition, the more reliable a student reported him- or herself on a smartphone, the greater the proximity of the affected the scores. Based on the scores, it didn’t matter if the phone was on or off, or face-down or face-up.

The researchers emphasized that smartphones are a useful tool in modern culture, as long as users are aware of the potential cognitive shortcomings.

“One’s smartphone is more than just a phone, a camera, or a collection of apps,” the authors wrote. “It is the one thing that connects everything – the hub of the connected world. The presence of one’s smartphone enables on-demand access to information, entertainment, social stimulation and more.

“However, our research suggests that these benefits – and the dependence they engender – may come at a cognitive cost.”

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