Monday, 24 September 2012

How the mere presence of a mobile phone harms face-to-face conversations

You sit down for a chat with a new acquaintance but before you're even started they've placed their phone carefully on the table in front of them. Why? Are they waiting for a call? Do they just enjoy marvelling at its chic plastic beauty? Either way, a new study suggests this familiar habit could be interfering with our attempts to socialise.

Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein asked 34 pairs of strangers to spend 10 minutes chatting to each other about "an interesting event that occurred to you over the past month". The participants sat on chairs in a private booth and for half of them, close by but out of their direct line of view, a mobile phone was placed on a table-top. For the other pairs, there was a note-book in place of the phone.

After they'd finished chatting, the participants answered questions about the partner they'd met. The ones who'd chatted with a phone visible nearby, as opposed to a notebook, were less positive. For example, they were less likely to agree with the statement "It is likely that my partner and I could become friends if we interacted a lot". They also reported feeling less closely related to their conversational partner.

A second study with a fresh set of participants was similar, but this time some of the 34 pairs of strangers chatted about a mundane topic, whilst others chatted about "the most meaningful events of the past year." Again, some of them did this with a phone placed nearby, others with a notebook in the same position.

For participants with the notebook visible nearby, having a more meaningful conversation (as opposed to a casual one) boosted their feelings of closeness and their trust in their conversational partner. But this extra intimacy was missing for the participants for whom a mobile phone was visible. When the researchers debriefed the participants afterwards they seemed to be unaware of the effects of the mobile phone, suggesting its adverse effects were at a non-conscious level.

Why should the mere presence of a mobile phone interfere with feelings of social intimacy in this way? Przybylski and Weinstein can't be sure, but they think that modern mobile phones might trigger in the mind automatic thoughts about wider social networks, which has the effect of crowding out face-to-face conversations. Considered in this way, the present findings are an extension of the wider literature on what's known as non-conscious priming (for example, the presence of a brief-case makes people more competitive).

A weakness of the study is that the researchers didn't compare the effects of the presence of a mobile phone against an old-fashioned land-line phone, or other forms of technology. So it's not clear how specific the effect is to mobile phones.

Also, as the authors acknowledge, this is just a preliminary observation that poses all sorts of future questions requiring further research. For example, did the presence of a mobile phone alter the behaviour and conversational style of the participants, or did it merely change their perceptions of the social experience? Would the effects be the same for people who are already in a close relationship?

But for now, Przybylski and Weinstein concluded: "These results indicate that mobile communication devices may, by their mere presence, paradoxically hold the potential to facilitate as well as to disrupt human bonding and intimacy."


Andrew K. Przybylski, and Netta Weinstein (2012). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1177/0265407512453827

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


kieraninmotion said...

"they think that modern mobile phones might trigger in the mind automatic thoughts about wider social networks, which has the effect of crowding out face-to-face conversations".

I'd put forward from personal experience that a mobile phone on a desk makes people think the owner is more likely to abandon them for something more important, otherwise why would they need to see their phone? So they would be less likely to emotionally invest as heavily for fear of abandonment as per cognitive ease (since investing emotionally can be cognitively draining). This also explains why it's non-conscious, since it would be a "system 1" process, to borrow a term.

Ann said...

If I saw a phone on a table near me-or even my table-and knew I was participating in a psych study, I would think I was being recorded (or eavesdropped on) and be more self-conscious and careful of what I said.

I don't think it would affect conversations with friends, and even with strangers it'd have less of an impact than this study suggests. (Unless that person kept watching the phone, in which case I'd think them rude and uninterested in me, and therefore definitely unlikeable!)

Anonymous said...

From personal experience, a mobile phone on the table makes me think that the conversation may be interrupted if the phone rings. And that makes me think that the owner of the phone is not investing a lot in that conversation unless he has a very strong reason to put the phone on the table.

Anonymous said...

Indeed - the degree of focused attention a person invests in one is a strong bonding factor - one is unlikely to be very intimate with someone who appears uninterested. A mobile phone left within easy reach (without apology or explanation, which could potentially increase intimacy) is evidence of a willingness to break off interaction in favour of an alternative 'more important' or 'more interesting'focus. It is an immediate indication of diffused attention and sends a negative message, akin to the businessman who is constantly looking over your shoulder whilst small-talking with you at a party, in case someone more valuable to them walks past.

Anonymous said...

This will sound like something out of "Things You Seldom See" but I remember a few months ago a man of a similar age to me (40s) with teenage children, came round for a little soiree, and said "I'm ever so sorry C, I'm going to have to keep my mobile phone on. It's just I'm not entirely sure about leaving the children on their own." And then tucked it out of sight in his pocket.

Oh if only everyone were so well-mannered in their mobile use!

Unknown said...

The placing of a phone on a table when conversing with an individual does show strains and effects on conversations. It seem's as though people need or want to know their enviorment around them all the time and the pressence of a phone catches alot of attention. The brains cognitive thinking will always keep it in thought and as you sit there pointlessly conversing about some topic, you answer with short statements and never truely engage in the conversation then, hey! i just got a text and your picking up the phone before you know it or looking at whoever's [phone for a couple seconds then try to play catch up in the conversation. I would believe if they put any source of handheld technology such as a computer or gameboy we would lose are depth in conversing skills, maybe to different extents but I believe it would be present and it would definately matter about the relationship you have with the person.

Alex Copper said...

From my personal experience - if my opponent has his phone on the table or in his hand, it makes me feel like he is waiting for a call that would "free" him/her from my presence and thus i do not feel like being an opponent he/she wants to talk to.

pikir kool said...

LOL i do this all the time but i do it out of convenience. getting a call and taking the phone out of your pocket, and putting them in again is so impractical. if u have it in your hand, you can just attend to it in a sec and get back to the conversation at hand. 'sides, everyone else is doing it. :)

Anonymous said...

I hate to say it pikir kool, but that just shows how rude you are in the context of those who comment above (and with whom I am in complete agreement) that we don't like feeling as though you'll just ignore us as soon as the phone rings! It's not convenience it's ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous above. I think Pikir represents a large demographic, unfortunately, who think nothing of interrupting a conversation to answer a call or even reply to a text message. I've challenged people on this before (replying to a text rather than waiting) and heard the standard response of "everyone does it". Its a ludicrous defense, and further evidence that this demographic have lost their sense of individuation and personal responsibility for their actions.

pikir kool said...

lol, perhaps u should read up a bit on structuralization. if most people of the locale are practising a particular habit, it's no longer considered rude. with regard to the statement below ..

"I hate to say it pikir kool, but that just shows how rude you are in the context of those who comment above"

well, since i dont interact or linger with the ones making the comment above, it'd be safe to say that i'm not actually being rude.

still, u can always extrapolate *virtual rudeness* to any part of the world, even to those at the north pole. regardless of whether it's reasonable or not. chill out bro, let ur hair down a bit :)

Unknown said...

Unless you are a Brain surgeon, AND on-call, if you break out a cell phone with me during a meal, I'm going to look for someone else to enjoy my meal with. Adam Friedman

Anonymous said...

I suppose it would be better if they would hire an actor for one part of conversation. I think It would have more "control" over some interfering factors. Dont you think guys?

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