Cell phones are ubiquitous in public places.
Credit: Peter Kim, Shutterstock
Going on a blind date? Here's a tip: Don't bring your phone.
The mere presence of a mobile phone can make the meeting between two strangers more stilted, according to new research published in the May issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Cellphones don't disrupt casual conversation much, the study found, but when people were asked to discuss something meaningful, they reported less trust, empathy and lower relationship quality when a cellphone was in the room.
"What the work does is highlights one potential downside to mobile phones being so ubiquitous," said study researcher Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist at the University of Essex. [The 10 Most Disruptive Technologies]
Przybylski got the inspiration for the study after noticing daters and bar-goers in Manhattan leaving their phones out on the bar or table. He wondered how the phone's presence might be influencing face-to-face interactions.
"It kind of sends a message that I could stop talking to you at any moment and start another conversation," Przybylski told LiveScience.
He and his University of Essex colleague Netta Weinstein designed two simple experiments in which two strangers were told to talk for 10 minutes. In the first scenario, 74 undergraduates were paired up and asked to talk about an interesting event in the last month. Some of them happened to have this conversation in a room with a mobile phone sitting unobtrusively on a nearby table. For others, the mobile phone was replaced by a black notebook.
A second experiment used the same setup with 68 students. This time, some of the students were told to have a casual conversation about how they felt about Christmas trees. Others were asked to discuss the most meaningful event of the year. Again, some participants had the conversation in the presence of a cellphone and others did not.
Turn it off
Even though the phone never rang or vibrated, it affected the conversation, Przybylski said.
"When people were having an important conversation, relationship quality was lower, and partner trust was lower and empathy was lower when the mobile phone was there," he said.
The effect was noticeable even though the participants barely noticed the phone. Surveys given after the experiment suggested the students had no idea the research involved the phone, and most had to be prompted to report they'd even seen it.
Przybylski doesn't see the research as condemning smartphones — plenty of studies find that technology does connect people, he said, particularly people who would otherwise fall out of touch due to distance. But being aware of technology's downsides may help make consumer tech less of a drag on your social life.
"There are both positives and negatives to different kinds of tech innovation, and what this research says is, basically, there are a lot of upsides — and if you're just mindful of the potential pitfalls, maybe we can build that self-regulatory capacity to put the phone away," Przybylski said.
"If you actually turn your phone off — and not make a scene of it, do it in a cool way — it definitely communicates care and compassion, and that the present moment is really important."