You May Feel More Focused with Your Phone Nearby

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Leaving phones behind can be distracting.

Keeping your phone nearby but not using it may give you a bump in perceived concentration, according to new research.

Researchers recruited 125 participants for the study, whom they assigned to one of three groups and then directed to sit alone in an empty room for six minutes, though they didn’t tell participants the duration.

Here’s how researchers divided up the groups:

  • Members of one group were told to entertain themselves with their mobile phone, except no phone calls and no texting.
  • Members of the second group had to leave their phones outside the room, sit alone without their device, and entertain themselves with their thoughts.
  • Members of the third group could keep their phones but told to turn them face down on the table in front of them and not use them. They were also told to entertain themselves with their thoughts.

Researchers used a fingertip device to measure skin conductance, an indicator of arousal. They used post-study questionnaires to measure participants’ level of enjoyment, concentration difficulty, mind wandering, and general mood.

The researchers found that participants without their phones had more difficulty concentrating and more mind wandering compared to those who used their phone. And those who had to resist using their phone had greater perceived concentration abilities than those who sat without their phone.

“The surprising finding for me was the reduction in concentration difficulty when people had to resist” using the phone, says Dave Markowitz, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.

Markowitz is interested in understanding the psychology of communication behavior, including language patterns and how media affects social and physical processes. As part of his doctoral thesis at Stanford University, he devised a study examining how subjects responded when exercising self-control with their phones.

One possible reason that resisting the phone led to perceived improvement concentration? Most people think phones are valuable and seeing it front of them, even though they could not use it, offered something to think about compared to sitting without their phone, he says.

“At least having it front of you was psychologically better than not having it all,” he says. “Having some form of external stimulation, even if it wasn’t used, I think that can focus the mind a bit.”

It suggests having the phone present is better than not, but what’s not clear is whether the phone is special, or if the participants would have reacted the same way with a book in front of them that they weren’t allowed to read or pick up, he says.

Markowitz’s findings fit with research by Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia, who found that when people were given time for “just thinking,” they experience psychological consequences—less enjoyment, more difficulty concentrating, more mind wandering—compared to if they had some form of external stimulation.

“The mind can wander and lose focus when you’re not given a thinking aid,” which can be less psychologically positive for people, he says.

The study also fits in a framework of trying to understand if technology, or media in general, are mirrors or modifiers of human behavior, Markowitz says.

If technology is a mirror, then mediated experiences reflect how people also act offline. If technology is a modifier, then in some cases it’s changing the way we behave, think and feel in the world, he says.

“That’s still really an open question,” he says. “There are some cases where mediated and nonmediated experiences show consistencies in behavior, but other cases where mediation plays a crucial, modifying role. I’m interested in exploring these boundaries.”

The study appears in PLOS ONE.

This article was originally published in Futurity. It has been republished under the Attribution 4.0 International license.

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