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Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

Author: Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos

Ward, Adrian F., et al. “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, vol. 2, no. 2, 2017, pp. 140–154., doi:10.1086/691462.

(excerpts from the article)

Our smartphones enable—and encourage—constant connection to information, entertainment, and each other. They put the world at our fingertips, and rarely leave our sides. Although these devices have immense potential to improve welfare, their persistent presence may come at a cognitive cost. 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. 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. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence. We conclude by discussing the practical implications of this smartphone-induced brain drain for consumer decision-making and consumer welfare.

The proliferation of smartphones has ushered in an era of unprecedented connectivity. Consumers around the globe are now constantly connected to faraway friends, endless entertainment, and virtually unlimited information. With smartphones in hand, they check the weather from bed, trade stocks—and gossip—while stuck in traffic, browse potential romantic partners between appointments, make online purchases while standing in-store, and live-stream each others’ experiences, in real time, from opposite sides of the globe. Just a decade ago, this state of constant connection would have been inconceivable; today, it is seemingly indispensable.1 Smartphone owners interact with their phones an average of 85 times a day, including immediately upon waking up, just before going to sleep, and even in the middle of the night (Perlow 2012; Andrews et al. 2015; dscout 2016). Ninety-one percent report that they never leave home without their phones (Deutsche Telekom 2012), and 46% say that they couldn’t live without them (Pew Research Center 2015). These revolutionary devices enable on-demand access to friends, family, colleagues, companies, brands, retailers, cat videos, and much more. They represent all that the connected world has to offer, condensed into a device that fits in the palm of one’s hand—and almost never leaves one’s side.

The sharp penetration of smartphones, both across global markets and into consumers’ everyday lives, represents a phenomenon high in “meaning and mattering” (e.g., Kernan 1979; Mick 2006)—one that has the potential to affect the welfare of billions of consumers worldwide. As individuals increasingly turn to smartphone screens for managing and enhancing their daily lives, we must ask how dependence on these devices affects the ability to think and function in the world off-screen. Smartphones promise to create a surplus of resources, productivity, and time (e.g., Turkle 2011; Lee 2016); however, they may also create unexpected deficits. Prior research on the costs and benefits associated with smartphones has focused on how consumers’ interactions with their smartphones can both facilitate and interrupt off-screen performance (e.g., Isikman et al. 2016; Sciandra and Inman 2016). In the present research, we focus on a previously unexplored (but common) situation: when smartphones are not in use, but are merely present.

We propose that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may induce “brain drain” by occupying limited-capacity cognitive resources for purposes of attentional control. Because the same finite pool of attentional resources supports both attentional control and other cognitive processes, resources recruited to inhibit automatic attention to one’s phone are made unavailable for other tasks, and performance on these tasks will suffer. We differentiate between the orientation and allocation of attention and argue that the mere presence of smartphones may reduce the availability of attentional resources even when consumers are successful at controlling the conscious orientation of attention.


General Discussion

The proliferation of smartphones represents a profound shift in the relationship between consumers and technology. Across human history, the vast majority of innovations have occupied a defined space in consumers’ lives; they have been constrained by the functions they perform and the locations they inhabit. Smartphones transcend these limitations. They are consumers’ constant companions, offering unprecedented connection to information, entertainment, and each other. They play an integral role in the lives of billions of consumers worldwide and, as a result, have vast potential to influence consumer welfare—both for better and for worse.

The present research identifies a potentially costly side effect of the integration of smartphones into daily life: smartphone-induced “brain drain.” We provide evidence that the mere presence of consumers’ smartphones can adversely affect two measures of cognitive capacity—available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence—without interrupting sustained attention or increasing the frequency of phone-related thoughts. Consumers who were engaged with ongoing cognitive tasks were able to keep their phones not just out of their hands, but also out of their (conscious) minds; however, the mere presence of these devices left fewer attentional resources available for engaging with the task at hand.

Further, we find that the effects of smartphone salience on available cognitive capacity are moderated by individual differences in the personal relevance of these devices (operationalized in terms of smartphone dependence); those who depend most on their devices suffer the most from their salience, and benefit the most from their absence. The role of dependence in determining mere presence effects suggests that similar cognitive costs would not be incurred by the presence of just any product, device, or even phone. We submit that few, if any, stimuli are both so personally relevant and so perpetually present as consumers’ own smartphones. However, we leave open the door for our insights to apply more broadly to future connective technologies that may become equally central to consumers’ lives as technology continues to advance.

Our research also offers insight into the tactics that might mitigate “brain drain”—as well as those that might not. For example, we find that the effect of smartphone salience on cognitive capacity is robust to both the visibility of the phone’s screen (face down in experiment 1, face up in experiment 2) and the phone’s power (silent vs. powered off in experiment 2), suggesting that intuitive “fixes” such as placing one’s phone face down or turning it off are likely futile. However, our data suggest at least one simple solution: separation. Although this approach may seem at odds with prior research indicating that being separated from one’s phone undermines performance by increasing anxiety (Cheever et al. 2014; Clayton et al. 2015), we note that participants in those studies were unexpectedly separated from their phones (Cheever et al. 2014) and forced to hear them ring while being unable to answer (Clayton et al. 2015). In contrast, participants in our experiments expected to be separated from their phones (this was the norm in the lab) and were not confronted with unanswerable notifications or calls while separated. We therefore suggest that defined and protected periods of separation, such as these, may allow consumers to perform better not just by reducing interruptions but also by increasing available cognitive capacity.

Our theoretical framework draws on prior research outlining the role of limited-capacity attentional resources in inhibiting responses to high-priority but task-irrelevant stimuli (Shallice 1972; Bargh 1982; Lavie et al. 2004; Clapp et al. 2009). However, our data are equally consistent with an alternate explanation: that these attentional resources are recruited for purposes of hypervigilance, or monitoring high-priority stimuli in the absence of conscious awareness (e.g., Legrain et al. 2011; Jacob, Jacobs, and Silvanto 2015). This interpretation is consistent with the common phenomenon of “phantom vibration syndrome,” or the feeling that one’s phone is vibrating when it actually is not (e.g., Rothberg et al. 2010; Deb 2015). Data suggest that 89% of mobile phone users experience phantom vibrations at least occasionally (Drouin, Kaiser, and Miller 2012), and that this over-responsiveness to innocuous sensations is particularly prevalent in those whose devices are particularly meaningful (e.g., Rothberg et al. 2010). Because the same limited-capacity attentional resources are implicated in both hypervigilance and inhibition, our data cannot distinguish between the two theoretical explanations. In fact, it is plausible that these processes may operate in tandem, as goal-directed attentional control processes both monitor for signals of potentially important information from high-priority stimuli, and (attempt to) prevent these stimuli from interrupting conscious attention until such signals appear.

Implications and Future Directions

Consumers’ limited cognitive resources shape innumerable aspects of their daily lives, from their approaches to decisions (Bettman et al. 1991) to their enjoyment of experiences (Weber et al. 2009). Our data suggest that the mere presence of consumers’ own smartphones may further constrain their already limited cognitive capacity by taxing the attentional resources that reside at the core of both working memory capacity and fluid intelligence. The specific cognitive capacity measures used in our experiments are associated with domain-general capabilities that support fundamental processes such as learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity (e.g., Cattell 1987; Kane et al. 2004). Because consumers’ smartphones are so frequently present, the mere presence effects observed in our experiments have the potential to influence consumer welfare across a wide range of contexts: when consumers work, shop, take classes, watch movies, dine with friends, attend concerts, play games, receive massages, read books, and more (Isikman et al. 2016). Moreover, results from our pilot study (reported prior to experiment 1) indicate that the majority of consumers typically keep their smartphones nearby and in sight, where smartphone salience is particularly high.


Younger adults—92% of whom are smartphone owners—rely heavily on smartphones (Pew Research Center 2016). Given that many of them are in school, the potential detrimental effects of smartphones on their cognitive functioning may have an outsized effect on long-term welfare. As educational institutions increasingly embrace “connected classrooms” (e.g., Petrina 2007), the presence of students’ mobile devices in educational environments may undermine both learning and test performance—particularly when these devices are present but not in use. Future research could focus on how children, adolescents, and young adults are affected by the mere presence of personally relevant technologies in the classroom.

DMU Timestamp: February 07, 2020 23:04

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