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The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices

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This study examined the relationship between the presence of mobile devices and the quality of real-life in-person social interactions. In a naturalistic field experiment, 100 dyads were randomly assigned to discuss either a casual or meaningful topic together. A trained research assistant observed the participants unobtrusively from a distance during the course of a 10-min conversation noting whether either participant placed a mobile device on the table or held it in his or her hand. Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling, it was found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood. People who had conversations in the absence of mobile devices reported higher levels of empathetic concern. Participants conversing in the presence of a mobile device who also had a close relationship with each other reported lower levels of empathy compared with dyads who were less friendly with each other. Implications for the nature of social life in ubiquitous computing environments are discussed.
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Environment and Behavior
http://eab.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/05/31/0013916514539755
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DOI: 10.1177/0013916514539755
published online 1 July 2014Environment and Behavior
Shalini Misra, Lulu Cheng, Jamie Genevie and Miao Yuan
Presence of Mobile Devices
The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the
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DOI: 10.1177/0013916514539755
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Article
The iPhone Effect: The
Quality of In-Person
Social Interactions in
the Presence of Mobile
Devices
Shalini Misra1, Lulu Cheng2, Jamie Genevie1, and
Miao Yuan3
Abstract
This study examined the relationship between the presence of mobile devices
and the quality of real-life in-person social interactions. In a naturalistic field
experiment, 100 dyads were randomly assigned to discuss either a casual
or meaningful topic together. A trained research assistant observed the
participants unobtrusively from a distance during the course of a 10-min
conversation noting whether either participant placed a mobile device on
the table or held it in his or her hand. Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling,
it was found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication
technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the
presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender,
ethnicity, and mood. People who had conversations in the absence of mobile
devices reported higher levels of empathetic concern. Participants conversing
in the presence of a mobile device who also had a close relationship with
each other reported lower levels of empathy compared with dyads who
1Virginia Tech, Alexandria, USA
2Monsanto, St. Louis, MO, USA
3Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA
Corresponding Author:
Shalini Misra, Urban Affairs and Planning, School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia
Tech, 1021 Prince St., Alexandria, VA 22314, USA.
Email: shalini@vt.edu
539755EABXXX10.1177/0013916514539755Environment and BehaviorMisra et al.
research-article2014
by guest on July 3, 2014eab.sagepub.comDownloaded from
2 Environment and Behavior
were less friendly with each other. Implications for the nature of social life
in ubiquitous computing environments are discussed.
Keywords
mobile devices, face-to-face social interaction, hybrid places, third places,
naturalistic field experiment
iPhone Effect: Shortly after one person in the group brings out their iPhone, the
rest follow suit, ultimately ending all conversation and eye contact.
Urban Dictionary
(http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=iphone%20effect)
Introduction
On September 23 2013, Nikhom Thephakayson repeatedly pointed and
waived a .45-caliber pistol on a San Francisco light rail. Engrossed in their
phones, not a single passenger among the dozens on the train noticed until he
fired a bullet into the back of Justin Valdez, a sophomore at San Francisco
State University (O’Connor, 2013). How can we explain the ostensible obliv-
iousness of those San Francisco light rail passengers?
Over four decades ago, Milgram (1970) explained the restricted social and
moral involvement of urbanites with fellow city dwellers as an adaptation to
urban overload. To cope with the experience of overloading metropolitan
conditions urbanites conserved their “psychic energy” (Simmel, 1950) by
developing adaptive mechanisms such as allocating less time for each input,
ignoring low priority inputs, and filtering out inputs, so that only superficial
forms of engagement with others were possible. The erosion of social respon-
sibility and estrangement from their social and physical surroundings were
interpreted as consequences of individuals’ adaptations to urban overload.
In the intervening decades since Milgram published his theory of urban
overload, the world has undergone fundamental and transformative changes.
One of the drivers of this change is the rapid growth of the Internet and
mobile communication technologies (Stokols, Misra, Runnerstrom, & Hipp,
2009). In the early 20th century, extremely dense and populous cities with
heterogeneous residents were the purported origins of urban overload
(Simmel, 1950; Wirth, 1938). In 21st-century global cities, unprecedented
opportunities for access to information and communication through mobile
communication technologies impose new neurological, psychological,
behavioral, and health burdens on people (Carr, 2011; Gergen, 2000;
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Misra et al. 3
Klingberg, 2008; Misra & Stokols, 2012a; 2012b; Turkle, 2012). In effect,
information and communication technologies have created a new category of
sensory overload, called cyber-based overload (Misra & Stokols, 2012a).
In contrast to place-based sources of sensory stimulation, cyber-based
overload originates from information and communication transactions from
networked technologies such as smartphones, laptops, and computers.
Indications of cyber-based overload include feeling overwhelmed by the
large volume of communication and information one must process on a day-
to-day basis, forgetting to respond to messages, and feeling compelled to
multitask (Misra & Stokols, 2012a). An emerging body of research has
focused on the socio-cognitive implications of multitasking and divided
attention (Cain & Mitroff, 2011; L. Lin, 2009; Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009;
Pea et al., 2012). Another line of research and theory has focused on the soci-
etal and cultural implications of our increasingly technologically mediated
environments (Gergen, 2010; Turkle, 2012). However, little research has
connected these two distinct but related theoretical and empirical areas of
research on the psychosocial ramifications of the Internet. This study bridges
this gap by examining the impact of divided attention on real-life social inter-
actions. The first part of the article considers earlier empirical work on
divided attention, multitasking, and cognitive overload. Next, we draw on
theoretical propositions of the social and cultural impacts of mobile devices.
Finally, we develop integrative hypotheses linking these heretofore separate
lines of theory and research concerning the relationship of the presence of
mobile communication technologies on the level of interpersonal connected-
ness and empathetic concern during face-to-face interactions in real-life natu-
ralistic settings.
Cognitive Implications of Divided Attention, Multitasking, and
Information Overload
Building on Miller’s (1956) and Sweller’s (1988) foundational work on
working memory and information processing, numerous studies have inves-
tigated the implications of information and communication technologies on
thinking. Cognitive overload resulting from the division of attention
demanded by information and communication technologies taxes individu-
als’ working memory, amplifying distractedness, and making it difficult for
them to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information (Cain &
Mitroff, 2011; Klingberg, 2008; L. Lin, 2009; Ophir et al., 2009). Experiments
and field studies on the impacts of multitasking on cognitive abilities have
found that divided attention limits information acquisition (Rockwell &
Singleton, 2007) and leads to poorer retention and learning (Hembrooke &
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4 Environment and Behavior
Gay, 2003; Poldrack & Foerde, 2008). Online hypertext-based reading envi-
ronments in which readers multitask by jumping from one hyperlink to the
next, or are engaged in two or more concurrent tasks have been linked with
learning and comprehension impediments in laboratory experiments
(DeStefano & LeFevre, 2007; Miall & Dobson, 2006; Niederhauser,
Reynolds, Salmen, & Skolmoski, 2000).
Field studies in organizational environments have revealed the extent of
the fragmentation of knowledge workers’ work routines caused by informa-
tion and communication technologies (González & Mark, 2004; Mark,
González, & Harris, 2005; Mark, Gudith, & Klocke, 2008). Workers rou-
tinely check for new email every 5 to 10 min (Renaud, Ramsay, & Hair,
2006), frequently switch between multiple tasks, and deal with many inter-
ruptions and information streams, disrupting their thoughts, weakening their
memory, increasing error proneness, impeding understanding, and inhibiting
their capacity for deep thought, concentration, critical analysis, and imagina-
tion (Carr, 2011; Foerde, Knowlton, & Poldrack, 2006; Greenfield, 2009;
Jackson, 2008; Misra & Stokols, 2012a; Ophir et al., 2009).
Some research indicates that multitasking does not inhibit familiar, rou-
tine, and automatic activities that require less cognitive effort (Just, Keller, &
Cynkar, 2008). Other studies have concluded that multitasking can be
improved with practice (Dux et al., 2009; Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, &
Perrig, 2008; Ruthruff, Van Selst, Johnston, & Remington, 2006). However,
a growing body of research focusing on the effects of cell phone use, such as
texting, dialing numbers, and talking on cell phones, on individuals’ attentive
capacities during habitual concurrent tasks is at odds with these findings. In
driver simulations tests, for example, individuals engaged on cell phones
have been found to perform significantly poorly compared with people lis-
tening to music, books on tape, conversing with a passenger, and even those
who were legally drunk (Drews, Pasupathi, & Strayer, 2008; Hunton & Rose,
2005; Klauer et al., 2014; Strayer & Drews, 2007; Strayer, Drews, & Crouch,
2006). In a recent field study, Hyman, Boss, Wise, McKenzie, and Caggiano
(2010) found that even in routine activities such as walking, cell phone users
moved more slowly, changed directions more frequently, were less likely to
acknowledge other people, and more likely to exhibit “inattentional blind-
ness”—lower likelihood of noticing distinctive stimuli in their environment
(Simons, 2000)—compared with individuals engaging in the other activities
not involving cell phones. These researchers conclude that the attentional
impediments caused by mobile phones are more likely to occur in tasks
involving higher levels of cognitive effort and processing by working mem-
ory (Fougnie & Marois, 2007). Talking or texting on the cell phone is one
such cognitively demanding activity that has demonstrated negative out-
comes even when attempted simultaneously with routine tasks.
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Misra et al. 5
Despite these cognitive strains, we are enamored by our mobile communi-
cation technologies. We rely on their ability to respond to our needs and inter-
ests in a highly complex, fast-paced technological society. We seek out the
pleasures they grant—speed, connectivity, and freedom—however, trivial,
irrelevant, illusory, and short-lived they may be (Madell & Muncer, 2007;
Wang & Tchernev, 2012). Only now are we beginning to understand the
social and cultural reverberations of the distributed attention enabled by
mobile communication technologies.
Socio-Cultural Implications of Divided Attention
To be sure, many 20th century technologies, such as the radio, the television,
air travel, and the automobile, have had a corrosive effect on face-to-face
interpersonal and community processes (Mumford, 2010; Ong, 1982). But
networked technologies are unique intellectual technologies (technologies
that extend the abilities of our brain such as the printing press, radio, and
television) because they subsume other intellectual technologies (Carr, 2011;
Gergen, 1992, 1996). Our smartphone is our personal computer, watch, map,
television, telephone, and more recently our emotional sensor and behavioral
modifier (Carroll et al., 2013; Culp-Ressler, 2013). Moreover, networked
technologies are distinctive in that they enable us to be in a persistent state of
“absent presence,” or the split consciousness created by mobile technologies
such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops with Wi-Fi connectivity in which
one is physically and perceptually present but immersed in a technologically
mediated world of elsewhere (Gergen, 2002; Stone, 2007). In fact, interpre-
tive research on the social behaviors of mobile users has found that mobile
phone users occupy multiple social spaces sometimes with conflicting social
norms: the physical space of the mobile phone user and the virtual space of
the mobile phone conversation (Palen, Salzman, & Youngs, 2000). Several
interpersonal implications follow from the expansion of the diverted con-
sciousness created by mobile devices, the most pertinent being “micro-social
fragmentation” (Gergen, 2003) and “horizontal relationships” (Gergen,
2002).
Micro-social fragmentation. Mobile communication technologies are symbols
of one’s relational ties (Gergen, 2003). They provide an unrestricted sense of
connection to wider social and organizational networks even when they are
on “silent mode” and not in active use (Mazmanian, Orlikowski, & Yates,
2005; Plant, 2001; Srivastava, 2005). In a study of Taiwanese college stu-
dents, cell phones were found to facilitate the symbolic proximity to valued
persons, strengthen familial bonds and social relationships, and expand their
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6 Environment and Behavior
psychological neighborhoods by providing instant membership in a social
community (Wei & Lo, 2006). Furthermore, they enable individuals to effec-
tively manage multiple loyalties simultaneously (work, family, and different
social groups) relatively unconstrained by space and time (Geser, 2004). One
can communicate with a social group or an individual, regardless of proxim-
ity or location, thereby elevating a spatially distant relationship over proxi-
mal, face-to-face relationships (Gergen, 2002). Indeed, Geser (2006) found
that a large proportion of couples repeatedly interrupt their meals to check for
text or voice messages while eating together. Similarly, Humphreys (2005)
found in a year-long observational study on mobile phone use in public places
that people rarely ever used their phones to make a call. Most often they seem
to play with their phones, checked to see if they are “on” or “off,” or checked
for messages. In an in-depth observational study of coffee shop patrons pre-
ceding this field experiment, we found that, on average, many individuals in
pairs or small groups checked their phones every 3 to 5 min regardless of
whether it rang or buzzed, often held their phones, or placed them on table in
front of them (Misra & Genevie, 2013). Recent studies have found that a
large percentage of individuals experience what has been termed as the
“phantom vibration syndrome”—perceived vibrations from a device that is
not really vibrating (Drouin, Kaiser, & Miller, 2012; Y.-H. Lin, Lin, Li,
Huang, & Chen, 2013).
These imagined vibrations as well as people’s constant urge to clasp and
monitor their phones are signs of their perceptual sensitivity to their mobile
devices and the impulse to be tuned in to instantaneous information and com-
munication access and exchange at all times. However, this apparent sense of
connection with far flung social and organizational networks and an outward
sense of control over information flows come at the cost of withdrawal from
local and proximal interactions and resentment among in-person friends and
colleagues (Humphreys, 2005; Mazmanian et al., 2005). In a large-scale
qualitative investigation, Turkle (2012) has revealed that the multiple spatio-
temporalities enabled by mobile computing can impede face-to-face conver-
sations by directing attention away from immediate interpersonal experiences
and making other relationships, interests, and concerns more salient.
Horizontal relationships. One of the concomitants of the expanding domain of
divided attention in our technologically mediated environments is a cultural
shift to horizontal relationships—an expanded network of superficial and
shallow relationships that do not command the dedicated time, effort, atten-
tion, and commitment of vertical relationships that progress gradually over
time and require long-term effort, commitment, and sacrifice to cultivate
(Gergen, 2002). Conversational styles encouraged by smart technologies are
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Misra et al. 7
brief, to the point, and easily communicated. They rarely support the explora-
tion of complex ideas or deep feelings further propelling the transformation
of culture toward “sound-bite relationships” (Gergen, 2003; Turkle, 2012). A
recent study investigating the neural correlates of admiration and compassion
concluded that introspective processing is required for individuals to compre-
hend the psychological states of others and empathize with them. This type of
introspective thought process necessary for understanding culturally shaped
social knowledge is slower and requires additional time compared with the
rapid, multitasking, and parallel processing in technologically mediated envi-
ronments (Immordino-Yang, McColl, Damasio, & Damasio, 2009).
An important connective theme emerges from these two research domains
and theoretical propositions. The physical context of social interactions has
been fundamentally altered by mobile communication technologies. Mobile
devices such as smartphones, cell phones, and tablets are social nuclei
symbols of individuals’ relational networks—diverting their attention and
orienting their thoughts to other people and places outside the immediate
spatial context. This split consciousness invited by mobile devices has the
potential to constrain in-person social interactions and relationships.
Following one of the fundamental forms of inter-individual influence, social
facilitation (Triplett, 1898; Zajonc, 1965), we posit that the mere presence of
a mobile device (representing relational networks) will increase individuals’
arousal levels, cause distraction leading to distraction conflict (Sanders,
Baron, & Moore, 1978), and thus impede the quality of complex tasks such
as in-person conversations. Distraction conflict refers to the attentional con-
flict that occurs when the individual is interested in paying attention to mul-
tiple stimuli simultaneously. The task or stimulus unrelated to the individuals’
primary task is referred to as the distraction. Distraction conflict only occurs
when the pressure to pay attention to each input is equal and the individual’s
cognitive capacities to do so are inadequate. In other words, because of the
symbolic value assigned to smart devices in our contemporary technological
society and the manner in which these devices are used to stay in the constant
flow of information, their mere presence, as environmental cues can distrib-
ute individuals’ attention and guide the behavior of those who are nearby
without their awareness. In fact, a recent laboratory experiment tested this
idea. The mere presence of a cell phone placed innocuously in the visual field
of participants was found to interfere with closeness, connection, and rela-
tionship quality in dyadic settings (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013). However,
the influence of the presence of mobile communication technologies beyond
cell phones on real-life relationships in naturalistic settings is yet to be inves-
tigated experimentally. Moreover, these laboratory findings need to be
explained in the context of existing theory and research.
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8 Environment and Behavior
This study is the first to test the theory of micro-social fragmentation
(Gergen, 2003) on interpersonal relationships. It does so by extending
Przybylski and Weinstein’s (2013) laboratory experiment and the qualitative
research on the influence of mobile technologies on social behavior in public
places in three ways: (a) It examines the relationship between the presence of
a wide range of mobile communication technologies such as smartphones,
cell phones, tablets, and Wi-Fi connected laptops and notebooks and the qual-
ity of in-person interactions; (b) It uses naturalistic social settings where
mobile devices are commonly present; and (c) It investigates the relationship
between the presence of these technologies and the nature of interactions in
real-life relationships, paying special attention to their influence on close and
distant relationships.
Given the findings of prior research on the effects of mobile devices on
people’s ability to focus their attention, their negative impacts on interper-
sonal relationships, and Przybylski and Weinstein’s (2013) findings regard-
ing the adverse effects of the presence of mobile phones on face-to-face
interactions among strangers engaged in a conversation in a laboratory set-
ting, we expected that the presence of mobile devices would be associated
with a lowering of feelings of interpersonal connectedness during face-to-
face social interactions in naturalistic environments (Hypothesis 1). We also
hypothesized that the visible presence of mobile technologies would be
related to lowering of empathetic concern in dyadic settings (Hypothesis 2).
We further predicted that the presence of smartphones, cell phones, laptops,
or other similar types of mobile communication technologies would be linked
with poorer relational outcomes (lowered interpersonal connectedness
(Hypothesis 3); and diminished empathetic concern (Hypothesis 4) for indi-
viduals reporting a closer relationship with their conversation partner, as
compared with those participants who were less interpersonally close with
each other. As in the Przybylski and Weinstein study, we examined which
conversational contexts have the most bearing on this relationship. Replicating
Przybylski and Weinstein’s experiment, we investigated this by manipulating
the content of the conversation to be either casual or meaningful. We hypoth-
esized that mobile devices would be linked to lower levels of interpersonal
connectedness (Hypothesis 5) and empathetic concern (Hypothesis 6) during
a meaningful discussion as compared with a casual conversation, in which
little self-disclosure is expected to take place.
Method
To design the field experiment to test the aforementioned hypotheses, we
conducted a preliminary reconnaissance study to ascertain the appropriate
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Misra et al. 9
setting for the field experiment (Misra & Genevie, 2013). Because the goal of
the study was to assess the relationships between the presence of mobile
devices and the quality of face-to-face social interactions in real-life relation-
ships and naturalistic social settings, we decided to conduct the study in cof-
fee shops and cafes. Coffee shops are an appropriate setting for this study
because people increasingly use such settings for work and socializing while
simultaneously using mobile technologies. Trained research assistants visited
a number of coffee shops and cafes in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan
Region and rated each location along a number of key dimensions: size, lay-
out, capacity, design features (lighting, fixtures, decor, arrangement of furni-
ture), density of the location at different time periods, the types of activities
that occurred in the location including activities involving the use of mobile
devices, and the characteristics of the patrons (age range, gender, ethnicity).
Five Washington D.C. Metropolitan Region (Alexandria, Arlington, and
Washington, D.C.) coffee shops were comparable along these dimensions;
Coffee shops that were of equivalent size, had a similar layouts, decor, and
design features, had correspondent levels of density at the time periods dur-
ing which data were collected, and where the types of activities that occurred
were alike were selected for the study.
Participants and Procedure
Because we were interested in the level of interpersonal connectedness in
dyadic settings, coffee shop customers in groups of two were approached for
this study at selected coffee shops in Alexandria, Arlington, and Washington,
D.C. Potential participants, if 18 years or older, were requested to participate
in a study about the nature of social interactions in coffee shops. The dyads
were approached as they entered the coffee shop and began to order their
drinks. Once they agreed to participate in the study and had picked up and
paid for their drinks, they were asked to be seated on two chairs with a table
in between them. Efforts were made to seat participants in similar types of
seats and within the same general zone within the study site. An appropriate
area within the coffee shop was chosen, so that the confederate could observe
the participants unobtrusively from a distance.
Two hundred participants, 100 dyads (109 female, 91 male; Mage = 33.38
years, SD = 12.18; 72% Caucasian), were recruited for the study. Participants
were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: (a) casual content of con-
versation or (b) meaningful content of conversation. We used a modified ver-
sion of a relationship formation task adapted from previous research meant to
emulate the content of many real-life conversations (Aron, Aron, & Smollan,
1992; Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013). Participants in the casual conversation
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10 Environment and Behavior
condition were instructed to “discuss their thoughts and feelings about plastic
holiday trees.” Those assigned to the meaningful conversation condition
were asked to “discuss the most meaningful events of the past year.” Dyads
were asked to spend 10 min discussing the topic together seated on two chairs
across each other in the coffee shop. The research assistant informed the par-
ticipants that they would be alerted when 10 min were complete.
As the participants engaged in the conversation on the given topic, a
trained research assistant observed the participants unobtrusively from a dis-
tance. The content of individuals’ conversations was not recorded. Only par-
ticipants’ non-verbal behavior was observed and noted. The research assistant
filled out an observation record sheet noting whether either participant placed
any type of mobile device (e.g., smartphone, cell phone, laptop, tablet, etc.)
on the table or held it in their hand during the 10-min span. At the conclusion
of 10 min, participants were requested to fill out a brief survey that required
approximately 5 min (per participant) to complete. An electronic version of
the survey was loaded on a tablet, which was used to complete the survey by
participants. The tablet was not visible to the study participants during the
course of the 10-min conversation. It was presented to the participants at the
conclusion of the experimental portion of the study. Participants had the
option of completing the survey using a paper-based version of the same
survey if they requested it. Each participant received a US$4 gift coupon for
use at the same coffee shop at the conclusion of the experimental
procedures.
Measures
Independent Variables. The presence of a mobile device, type of conversation,
and conversation partner closeness were the independent variables in this
field experiment. Degree of psychological closeness (conversation partner
closeness) between participants was measured using the Inclusion of Other in
Self Scale (Aron et al., 1992), which we modified to fit the requirements of
this study. Participants were instructed to select one of seven increasingly
overlapping circle pairs representing the closeness between themselves and
their conversation partner, where 1 = not at all close to 7 = extremely close
(Figure 1; M = 5.72; SD = 1.39).
Dependent variables
Connectedness. A six-item version of the connectedness subscale of the
Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI) (McAuley, Duncan, & Tammen, 1989)
with items ranging from 1 (not at all true) to 7 (very true) was used to mea-
sure feelings of interpersonal connectedness during the conversation. The
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Misra et al. 11
connectedness subscale of the IMI has been used in prior research to measure
feelings of interpersonal connectedness during social interactions in newly
formed and committed relationships over time (e.g., Reis, Sheldon, Gable,
Roscoe, & Ryan, 2000; Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013). The scale included
the following items: “I felt a sense of connectedness with my conversation
partner”; “I felt close to my conversation partner”; “I felt really distant to my
conversation partner”; “I’d like a chance to interact with my conversation
partner more often”; “It is likely that my conversation partner and I could
become better friends if we interacted a lot”; and “I felt I could really trust
my conversation partner” (M = 5.27; SD = 0.69; α = .73).
Empathetic concern. Empathy was measured with the eight-item Empathic
Concern Scale (Davis, 1980, 1995; Reis, Clark, & Holmes, 2004) on a 7-point
Likert-type scale, where 1 = not at all true to 7 = very true. Items such as, “To
what extent do you think your conversation partner missed the key meaning
of the topic you discussed?” and “To what extent did your conversation part-
ner make an effort to understand your thoughts and feelings about the topic
you discussed?” were included (M = 5.75; SD = 0.75; α = .91).
Control variables. In addition to age, gender, and ethnicity of the participants,
we controlled for positive and negative affect of the participants. Positive and
negative affect was assessed using the nine-item Emmons Mood Indicator
(Diener, Larsen, Levine, & Emmons, 1985) to account for the potential con-
founding effect of overall mood on relational outcomes. Items included
pleased, anxious, and frustrated (M = 3.96; SD = 0.58; α = .82), paired with
a 7-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely).
Figure 1. Modified version of the Inclusion of Other in Self scale (Aron et al.,
1992).
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12 Environment and Behavior
Table 1. Summary Statistics for All Study Variables in the Presence and Absence
of Mobile Devices.
Variable
Mobile devices
Presence Absence
M SD M SD
Connectedness 5.05 0.76 5.36 0.64
Empathetic concern 5.51 0.91 5.85 0.66
Mood 4.01 0.59 3.94 0.58
Closeness 5.28 1.65 5.90 1.23
Age 31.43 11.46 34.15 12.42
Gender Number % Number %
Male 34 58.6 75 52.8
Female 24 41.4 67 47.2
Ethnicity Number % Number %
Asian 9 15.52 11 7.75
African American 6 10.34 4 2.82
Middle Eastern 1 1.72 3 2.11
Native American 1 1.72 1 0.70
Non-White Hispanic 4 6.90 6 4.23
Pacific Islander 1 1.72 0 0.00
Caucasian 32 55.17 112 78.87
Other 4 6.90 5 3.52
Results
Descriptive Statistics
Table 1 presents the overall means and standard deviations of ordinal and
interval variables and the percentages for the categorical variables in this
study under the conditions of presence and absence of mobile devices. Table
2 presents the intra-class correlations among study variables.
Data Analytic Strategy
Analyses required accommodations for nesting persons within dyads (assum-
ing non-independence between the two interacting conversation partners).
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Misra et al. 13
Analyses were therefore conducted with Hierarchical Linear Modeling
(HLM; Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002). Unconditional models with random
intercept were first assessed to determine whether there existed sufficient
variance between- and within-dyads. Intra-class correlation derived from
these models showed that for connectedness, the difference between average
connectedness scores across dyads accounted for 45.11% of the total variance
and was found to be significant (p < .05). For empathy, the difference between
average empathy scores across dyads accounted for 27.2% of the total vari-
ance and was found to be significant (p < .05).
We specified a Hierarchical Linear Model by adding the following factors
as fixed effects to the fully unconditional random intercept model, measured
at either the dyad level or the individual level: Presence of mobile device
(mobile device present: 1; mobile device absent: 0), and conversation topic
(casual: 1; meaningful: 0) were measured at level 2 (dyad level); while
covariates (gender, age, ethnicity, and mood) and conversation partner close-
ness (scaled 1-7) were measured at level 1 (individual level). The estimation
method used was Restricted Maximum Likelihood (REML).
For the outcome variable, connectedness, our HLM reduced the variance
by 45% at the dyad level and by 22% at the individual level. For the response
variable, empathetic concern, our HLM model reduced the variance by 84%
at the dyad level and by 2% at the individual level. Please refer to Table 3 for
information on the variance components for the unconditional and specified
HLM in this study.
We conducted a likelihood ratio test to check whether our model signifi-
cantly improved the unconditional model. For the response variable connect-
edness, −2 multiplied by the log likelihood for the unconditional model was
1,097.88, and it was 804.67 for our full model. So the deviance between the
two models was 293.22 (p < .05), which indicates that our model is signifi-
cant compared with the unconditional model. For the response variable
Table 2. Intra-class Correlations Among Study Variables With Means and
Standard Deviations Along the Diagonal (N = 200).
Variable 1. Connectedness 2. Empathy 3. Mood 4. Closeness 5. Age
1. Connectedness 5.27 (0.69)
2. Empathy .51* 5.75 (0.75)
3. Mood .34* .41* 3.96 (0.58)
4. Closeness .49* .38* .18* 5.72 (1.39)
5. Age −.05 .07 −.04 −.03 33.38 (12.18)
*p < .05 (two-tailed).
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14 Environment and Behavior
Table 3. HLM Results: Estimates (Unstandardized b slopes) of the Variable Effect
and t Tests for the Estimates for the Outcome Variables of Connectedness and
Empathetic Concern (N = 200).
Random effects Connectedness Empathetic concern
Variance component
Unconditional
model
Specified
model
Unconditional
model
Specified
model
Dyad-level (Level 2) 7.81 4.33 12.55 1.97
Individual-level (Level 1) 9.50 7.42 33.66 32.97
Fixed effects Connectedness Empathetic concern
Variable b SE t b SE t
Intercept 18.66 2.37 7.87* 23.85 4.35 5.48*
Gender of participant
(female)
0.18 0.27 0.66 0.35 0.54 0.64
Ethnicity of participant
(Overall F test)
NA NA 0.83 NA NA 1.03
Age of participant −0.02 0.02 −0.69 0.04 0.05 0.77
Mood/affect 0.19 0.06 3.16* 0.49 0.11 4.28*
Device absent 0.85 0.37 2.28* 0.94 0.59 1.59*
Partner close 1.31 0.24 5.55* 1.74 0.40 4.36*
Partner close × Device
absent
−0.13 0.24 −0.55 −1.08 0.41 −2.61*
Topic casual 0.06 0.37 0.15 −0.29 0.60 −0.48
Device absent × Topic casual −0.18 0.38 −0.47 0.38 0.62 0.61
Note. For ethnicity, none of the eight levels were found to be significant. We report the overall F statistic in
the interest of space. NA = not applicable; SE = standardized error; HLM = Hierarchical Linear Modeling.
*p<.05
R2 = .72 for the HLM in which “connectedness” was the outcome variable.
R2 = .43 for the HLM in which “empathetic concern” was the outcome variable.
empathetic concern, −2 multiplied by the log likelihood for the unconditional
model was 1,239.14, and it was 916.04 for our full model. So the deviance
between the two models was 323.10 (p < .05), which again indicates that our
model is significantly compared with the unconditional model.
Hypothesis Testing
Of 100 dyads, 29 dyads had mobile devices present whereas 71 dyads did not
have any mobile devices present during the 10-min conversation. Table 3
presents the results of the HLM analyses in which we examined the relation-
ship of the presence of mobile devices, conversation partner closeness, and
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Misra et al. 15
conversation topic on the outcome variables of connectedness and empa-
thetic concern, controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and mood of partici-
pants. Degrees of freedom were computed using the Kenward–Roger
correction for mixed models. The advantage of using this type of degree of
freedom is the increased accuracy of the distribution of the test statistics
because it accounts for the increased variability from the estimation of ran-
dom effects, especially when the data are unbalanced (Kenward & Roger,
1997).
Relationship between the presence of mobile devices and interpersonal connected-
ness. As predicted, we found a significant and positive main effect of the
absence of mobile devices on levels of connectedness between dyads above
and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood, b = 0.85,
t(77.8) = 2.28, p < .05. Table 3 shows a positive significant main effect of
conversation partner closeness on the level of connectedness, b = 1.31,
t(118.7) = 5.55, p < .05. Contrary to our hypotheses, we did not find a signifi-
cant interaction effect between the presence of a mobile device and conversa-
tion partner closeness for the outcome variable of connectedness. Similarly,
no significant interaction effect was found between the presence of a mobile
device and conversation topic on the dependent variable of connectedness.
Relationship between the presence of mobile devices and empathetic con-
cern. Dyads who had conversations without any smartphones or other mobile
technologies reported higher levels of empathetic concern for their conversa-
tion partners above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and
mood, b = 0.94, t(64.4) = 1.59, p < .05.
Empathetic concern was expected to be lower for dyads that are closer to
each other for conversations in the presence of mobile devices. A significant
main effect was found for the relationship between conversation partner
closeness and empathetic concern, b = 1.74, t(100.2) = 4.36 p < .05; so empa-
thetic concern increased with reported closeness between conversation part-
ners. We found, as expected, that the presence of mobile devices is linked to
lower levels of self-reported empathetic concern among dyads reporting a
friendlier relationship with each other compared with those who are less
friendly with each other, b = −1.08; t(100.9) = −2.61, p < .05. The interaction
plot between presence of mobile communication devices and conversation
partner closeness for the outcome measure of empathetic concern is depicted
in Figure 2.
Our final hypothesis that the presence of mobile devices would be associ-
ated with diminished levels of empathetic concern during meaningful con-
versations compared with casual interactions was not supported by the data.
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16 Environment and Behavior
Discussion
This study presents field experimental evidence of some of the unfavorable
implications of the presence of mobile devices on the character of face-to-
face interactions. If either participant placed a mobile communication device
(e.g., smartphone or a cell phone) on the table or held it in their hand during
the course of the 10-min conversation, the quality of the conversation was
rated to be less fulfilling compared with conversations that took place in the
absence of mobile devices. The same participants who conversed in the pres-
ence of mobile communication devices also reported experiencing lower
empathetic concern compared with participants who interacted without dis-
tracting digital stimuli in their visual field. The relationship between the pres-
ence of mobile devices and empathetic concern was more pronounced for
participants who reported a closer relationship with each other compared
with those who were less familiar with each other. We, however, could not
replicate the significant interaction between the type of conversation and the
presence of mobile devices on interpersonal connectedness and empathetic
concern in a naturalistic setting.
Two related explanations are advanced for these findings based on the
theories and earlier empirical research framing this study. First, mobile
Presence of Mobile Devices
Absent
Present
Conversation Partner Closeness
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
4.0
4.5
5.0
5.5
6.0
Empathetic Concern
Figure 2. Interaction plot between presence of mobile device and conversation
partner closeness for the outcome variable of empathetic concern.
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Misra et al. 17
phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies. Even
when they are not in active use or buzzing, beeping, ringing, or flashing, they
are representative of people’s wider social network and a portal to an immense
compendium of information. In their presence, people have the constant urge
to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts
to other people and worlds. Their mere presence in a socio-physical milieu,
therefore, has the potential to divide consciousness between the proximate
and immediate setting and the physically distant and invisible networks and
contexts. The permeable and fluid pervasive computing environments of our
technological society and the array of behavioral demands they create thus
dramatically change the socio-physical context of face-to-face communica-
tion. In these permeable and micro-fragmented contexts, we are in a constant
state of poly-consciousness in which multiple relationships and settings can
be the focus of one’s attention at any given time regardless of location or
context. In this context of “relational multiplicity” (Gergen, 2000), in-person
interactions are not more important or do not take precedence over online
conversations. Thus, even without active use the presence of mobile tech-
nologies has the potential to divert individuals from face-to-face exchanges,
thereby undermining the character and depth of these connections. Individuals
are potentially more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions, and changes
in the tone of their conversation partner’s voice, and have less eye contact
when their thoughts are directed to other concerns in the presence of a mobile
device. These non-verbal and verbal elements of in-person communication
are important for a focused and fulfilling conversation.
Second, as our relational networks are widened through the increasing use
of and dependence on information and communication technologies, we
accumulate a very large stock of relationships often spanning large distances
geographically. Consequently, the time and energy that is available for any
one relationship decreases. The few strong, committed, and deep relation-
ships are replaced by a broad array of weak ties (Gergen, 2002). Moreover,
the slow processing powers and capacity for thoughtful reflection and empa-
thy may be diminished with increasing immersion in technological environ-
ments (Immordino-Yang et al., 2009). One of the implications of the increase
in horizontal relationships (Gergen, 2002) is the lack of focused attention to
any one interaction context. In the “floating worlds” (Gergen, 2003) created
by the presence of mobile communication technologies and the potential for
access to a wide range of relationships and information at all times, individu-
als’ thoughts are directed to other places, people, and contexts. The result is
diminished quality of the “here and now” interactions with co-present others.
People who are closer to each other are more irked by the presence of mobile
devices, possibly because they expect complete attentiveness of persons who
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18 Environment and Behavior
mean so much to them (Geser, 2006; Humphreys, 2005; Mazmanian et al.,
2005). In more distant relationships, perhaps partial attentiveness may be
more likely to be tolerated.
The results should be viewed within the constraints of the naturalistic fea-
tures of the experiment. First, this study did not manipulate the independent
variable (presence or absence of the mobile device), so we are unable to make
causal inferences. Second, it is possible that the personal characteristics of
individuals who placed a mobile device on the table or held it in their hands
explain the relationships we have found. However, we do not think this is
likely because we accounted for the mood of participants in our statistical
models. Moreover, we were able to replicate the results of Przybylski and
Weinstein’s (2013) laboratory experiment. Third, this study only examined
whether either participant placed a mobile device on the table or held it at any
point during the course of the conversation, but not the number of times par-
ticipants touched or handled their mobile devices. The number of times a
mobile device was touched or handled may have an impact on the quality of
conversation and this question should be investigated in future research on
the topic. Fourth, this study does not test the proposed explanatory mecha-
nisms underlying the relationship between the presence of mobile devices
and connectedness and empathetic concern. Future studies need to probe
more deeply into the explanatory mechanisms of this interesting relationship.
Similar studies need to be conducted in home environments to investigate
how mobile technologies influence interpersonal relations within residential
environments. Furthermore, longitudinal studies combining interpretive and
experimental methods in which the nature of conversations among family
members is tracked over time would further illuminate these initial findings.
Limitations notwithstanding, this research makes three key contributions.
First, it provides a real-world replication of Przybylski and Weinstein’s
(2013) laboratory experiment. Second, it contributes to the empirical work on
the consequences of divided attention caused by multitasking in information
and communication environments. Consistent with the findings of simula-
tion, field experimental, and laboratory studies on divided attention and mul-
titasking, we find that controlled and effortful tasks like having a conversation
are impeded by the distracting presence of mobile technologies. Third, this
study is the first to test the theory of micro-social fragmentation in a real-life
interpersonal context, where space is conceptualized in relational terms rather
than a geographically delimited area (Gergen, 1992; Harvey, 1989; Massey,
1993).
As virtual worlds increasingly permeate our place-based physical environ-
ments, we must question what their consequences will be for our personal
and collective lives. As our appetite for technological progress continues,
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Misra et al. 19
critical scrutiny of the social, psychological, and cultural implications is par-
amount. Smart technologies offer the possibility of instantaneous and con-
tinuous global communities where knowledge is shared, opinions are
contributed, relationships are rekindled, expressions of support are enhanced,
and social movements are spawned. Ubiquitous computing technologies can
function centripetally, where communities based on common interests and
values can be realized, in contrast to centrifugal intellectual technologies
such as the TV and radio (Gergen, 1996; Meyrowitz, 1985). But these new
global communities deserve closer examination, for as this study finds, they
may emerge at the cost of face-to-face interpersonal relationships. It is hoped
that the empirical and conceptual resources supplied by this study promote a
collective deliberation on the direction of our networked society.
Acknowledgment
The authors acknowledge the helpful comments and suggestions of Drs. Sasi Misra,
Daniel Stokols, Patrick Roberts, and Chitvan Trivedi, on earlier versions of this
article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publi-
cation of this article.
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Author Biographies
Shalini Misra is an assistant professor in Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia
Tech. Her research interests include environment and behavior studies, specially
focusing on the psychological and health impacts of environmental stressors such as
information overload and multitasking, and the social, psychological, and health
implications of the Internet and digital communication technologies.
Lulu Cheng, PhD, is a regulatory statistician in the Statistical Technology Center at
Monsanto. Prior to this position, she was a research statistician at the Laboratory for
Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis at Virginia Tech. She has a PhD in Statistics
from Virginia Tech. Her research interests include regression, quality control, and
data mining.
Jamie Genevie is a Master’s of Urban and Regional Planning student at Virginia
Tech. She is interested in the application of environment and behavior studies to
urban planning.
Miao Yuan is a PhD student in the Department of Statistics at Virginia Tech. She is
an Associate Collaborator at the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis
at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include regression, reliability and survival
analysis.
by guest on July 3, 2014eab.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... Of course, the social pain response might be immediately buffered by the fact that the phubbers only ostracize the phubbees for a relatively short period of time. Specifically, they usually attend briefly to their mobile phone before re-focusing their attention on the real-life conversation, or they do so in between multiple phubbing episodes, where they divide their attention between their mobile phone and the concurrent conversation (Misra et al., 2016). Indeed, research on ostracism in which the ostracism experiences were followed by re-inclusion (Rudert et al., 2017) or in which people experienced partial ostracism (i.e., receiving one of two balls in an online ball-tossing game; Van Beest, 2016) caused less negative mood and lower need threat than did full-blown ostracism. ...
... Prior research has solely focused their insights on self-reports by their participants. For example, people who had conversations in which a mobile phone was present or was used reported to experience less empathic concern (Misra et al., 2016), less interpersonal trust (Cameron and Webster, 2011), and reduced relationship (Roberts and David, 2016;Bröning and Wartberg, 2022) and friendship satisfaction (Sun and Samp, 2021). Overall, phubbing is perceived as inappropriate by phubbees, and the perceived inappropriateness increases with the frequency in which the mobile phone is used during the conversation (Klein, 2014). ...
... neutral behavior) during a 10-min conversation in Study 2. However, in contrast to the study by Gonzales and Wu, phubbers in our study only focused their attention on the mobile phone for a short period of time and continued their conversation with the participant afterward. We thus ensured high external validity by manipulating phubbing more realistically (Misra et al., 2016). Additionally, we varied different relevant aspects of phubbing. ...
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With phubbing (i.e., “The act of snubbing someone… by looking at your phone instead of paying attention”) being a widespread phenomenon, a sound understanding of its emotional reverberations and consequences for interpersonal relationships is required. To the extent that phubbing is perceived as a momentary act of ostracism, it should influence both emotional and behavioral reactions. To address this issue empirically, we investigated effects of phubbing on variables previously shown to be affected by ostracism. Specifically, we examined in two studies how being phubbed affects participants’ mood, satisfaction of fundamental needs, feelings of being ostracized (Study 1 and 2) and trust (Study 2). In Study 1, participants remembered a situation in which they were either phubbed, phubbed someone else or experienced an attentive conversation. In Study 2 different phubbing behaviors were manipulated during an ongoing conversation. Results from both studies suggest that phubbing triggers negative mood and feelings of ostracism, and threatens fundamental needs. Study 2 revealed that these effects were stronger when phubbing occurred three times (vs. once). Study 2 further demonstrated behavioral consequences of phubbing, namely that trust in a trust game was reduced when participants were phubbed three times (vs. once). We discuss conceptual and practical implications of smartphone use for emotion regulation and interpersonal relations.
... Despite these advantages, smartphone use has adverse efects on individuals' physiological and psychological health [33][34][35] and their relationships. It may damage the level of intimacy and connection, reduce interaction quality [42,52], and make companions feel awkward and excluded in social settings [23]. ...
... Furthermore, smartphone use may adversely afect users' social interactions and relations. For example, people become less engaged with their immediate social environment due to heavy smartphone use during social interaction [1,9,42,57]. In an empirical study that addresses the impact of smartphone use during dyadic conversations on 238 participants, participants perceived this behavior as less polite and attentive [1]. ...
... Also, conversations with smartphones block empathic connection. If two people are speaking and there is a phone on a nearby desk, each feels less connected to the other than when there is no phone present [42]. ...
... The presence of a cell phone is so powerful that one need not even directly use it to experience its negative effects. For example, a naturalistic study of dyads in a coffee shop found that participants with a mobile device present during their interaction rated their conversation as less fulfilling, and reported lower levels of empathic concern in their conversation partner (Misra, Cheng, Genevie, & Yuan, 2016). Another study found that just having a phone present during meaningful conversations leads to lower ratings of trust, perceived partner empathy, and relationship quality (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013), though a recent study failed to replicate these findings (Linares & Sellier, 2021). ...
... Prior work has examined the correlation between phone use and social connection, enjoyment, and engagement using a combination of observational studies, retrospective reports, and experimental manipulation of phone use (Barasch et al., 2018;Choi & Toma, 2014;David & Roberts, 2017;Diehl et al., 2016;McDaniel & Coyne, 2016;Misra et al., 2016;Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013;Roberts & David, 2016;Sharifian & Zahodne, 2020;Stothart et al., 2015;Tamir et al., 2018;Wang et al., 2017;Ward et al., 2017). However, no study to date has experimentally examined why people continue to use their phones, despite the negative outcomes. ...
... As prior research has shown, phone use in social situations can increase feelings of exclusion, decrease relationship satisfaction and relationship quality in romantic relationships, and lower overall life satisfaction (McDaniel & Coyne, 2016;Misra et al., 2016;Roberts & David, 2016;Wang et al., 2017). Our studies provide evidence that some of these negative effects can extend to platonic relationships as well. ...
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