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The Mere Presence of a Cell Phone May be Distracting: Implications for Attention and Task Performance

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Research consistently demonstrates the active use of cell phones, whether talking or texting, to be distracting and contributes to diminished performance when multitasking (e.g., distracted driving or walking). Recent research also has indicated that simply the presence of a cell phone and what it might represent (i.e., social connections, broader social network, etc.) can be similarly distracting and have negative consequences in a social interaction. Results of two studies reported here provide further evidence that the "mere presence" of a cell phone may be sufficiently distracting to produce diminished attention and deficits in task-performance, especially for tasks with greater attentional and cognitive demands. The implications for such an unintended negative consequence may be quite wide-ranging (e.g., productivity in school and the work place).
Original Article
The Mere Presence of a Cell Phone
May be Distracting
Implications for Attention and Task Performance
Bill Thornton, Alyson Faires, Maija Robbins, and Eric Rollins
University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME, USA
Abstract. Research consistently demonstrates the active use of cell phones, whether talking or texting, to be distracting and contributes to
diminished performance when multitasking (e.g., distracted driving or walking). Recent research also has indicated that simply the presence of a
cell phone and what it might represent (i.e., social connections, broader social network, etc.) can be similarly distracting and have negative
consequences in a social interaction. Results of two studies reported here provide further evidence that the ‘‘mere presence’’ of a cell phone may
be sufficiently distracting to produce diminished attention and deficits in task-performance, especially for tasks with greater attentional and
cognitive demands. The implications for such an unintended negative consequence may be quite wide-ranging (e.g., productivity in school and
the work place).
Keywords: cell phone, distraction, attention, performance
Mobile cell phones are ubiquitous and ‘‘smartphones’’ in
particular are becoming increasingly prevalent. Recent sur-
veys indicate that at least 85% of people in the United
States have cell phones, and that over 50% of these users
now have smartphones (Duggan & Rainie, 2012; Nielsen,
2013; Smith, 2012; Time Mobility Poll, 2012). Overall,
users note that mobile technology has changed their lives
with most indicating it has helped them maintain or
enhance their relationships with friends and family. Aside
from calling, it is texting that has become the predominate
use of the cell phone, followed by email and social net-
working. Indeed, in the 10 years since 2002, text messaging
in the United States alone has gone from 31 million per day
to 6 billion (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Associ-
ation, 2012).
The ‘‘constant connectivity’’ afforded by mobile tech-
nology has contributed to a preoccupation with the cell
phone an overwhelming majority of users check their
phone upon waking and as the last thing before bed, are
continually checking for calls and texts, and report they
could not go without their phone for one day (Perlow,
2012; Smith, 2012; Time, 2012).
Such ‘‘cognitive salience,’’ when the cell phone domi-
nates ones thoughts or focus, along with ‘‘behavioral sal-
ience,’’ a preoccupation with checking/using the cell
phone, are primary symptoms of behavioral addiction
(Walsh, White, & Young, 2008). Moreover, this constant
connectivity throughout the day provides for a continual
source of interruptions and distractions and potentially dimin-
ishes our ability to maintain attention and to concentrate and
think deeply about things (Carr, 2010; Wajcman & Rose,
2011). Yet, a majority of users report ‘‘no problem’’
with regard to being able to disconnect from work at
home, give people undivided attention, or focus on a task
without being distracted (Smith, 2012).
Distraction Associated With Cell
Phone Use
Multitasking is very common with mobile technology (e.g.,
talking/texting while driving, walking, shopping, or watch-
ing television) and perhaps contributes to the usersbelief
that the cell phone makes it easier to stay in touch with peo-
ple, helps coordinate daily activities, and contributes to
greater productivity (Smith, 2012). Indeed, multitasking
with the cell phone has the appearance of not taking up
extra time; instead, it creates the illusion of ‘‘giving you
more time’’ (Turkle, 2011).
Distracted Driving and Walking
However, multitasking with the cell phone has obvious
negative consequences as is apparent with delayed detec-
tion and reaction times, inattentional blindness, and
increased incidents of accidents associated with distracted
driving (Caird, Willness, Steel, & Scialfa, 2008; Strayer,
2014 Hogrefe Publishing Social Psychology 2014; Vol. 45(6):479–488
DOI: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000216
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... Most research considering smartphone-related distraction tends to focus on interferences associated with the actual use of the device -multitasking -and the impacts that this can have on task-performance (for systematic reviews and meta-analyses see Parry & Le Roux, 2021;Van Der Schuur et al., 2015;Wiradhany & Koerts, 2021;Wiradhany & Nieuwenstein, 2017). Alongside this line of inquiry, a second body of research focuses on interferences associated with the mere presence of a smartphone (Thornton et al., 2014;Ward et al., 2017). Such work is based on the premise that smartphones are especially salient stimuli that can attract the allocation and orientation of attention, even without the device needing to be used. ...
... These similar, albeit distinct, papers provide the theoretical and empirical basis followed in most subsequent research. Thornton et al. (2014) first investigated the possibility that the mere presence of a smartphone might negatively impact attentional performance. To do so, these researchers conducted two experiments. ...
... In both experiments, the control condition kept their phones in their pocket/bag, and effects of device presence on performance in tasks assessing two aspects of a participant's cognitive capacity -sustained attention and cognitive flexibility -were evaluated. While the results were nuanced across the various metrics and versions of these tasks, overall, the pattern of findings supported Thornton et al. (2014)'s conclusion that the mere presence of a phone reduces attentional capacity and performance when the primary task is attentionally and cognitively demanding. ...
... Sci. 2023, 13, x FOR PEER REVIEW 4 of 12 Figure 2. Overall effect [3,8,9,[14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31]]. ...
... At the same time, the majority of positive effects were detected in comparatively small samples, while negative effects were also reported in samples that tended to be larger. The funnel plot does not indicate a possible bias or possible outliers, as we also found and took into account studies in which low effect sizes were reported for a small [3,8,9,[14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31]]. ...
... It is possible that the variance that continues to exist is due to the use of different measurement instruments. For example, some study designs used "Raven's Standard Progressive Matrices Test" or the "Spanboard Test" [16], while others used a "trail making test" or a test to capture "digit cancellations" [30]. An analysis of possible moderators suggests that the nationality of the individuals studied contributes to this variance. ...
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Smartphones have become an indispensable part of everyday life. Given the current debate about the use of smartphones in classrooms and schools, it seems appropriate to examine their effects on aspects of cognitive performance in more detail. Ward and colleagues not only demonstrated the negative effect of smartphones on cognitive performance but also showed that the mere presence of these devices can have this effect—this is known as the Brain Drain effect. In the present article, a meta-analytic approach was adopted in order to verify these findings. Here we show a significant overall negative effect of smartphone use and presence. In a database search we identified 22 studies with a total of 43 relevant effects that could be assigned to the categories “memory”, “attention”, and “general cognitive performance”. A subgroup analysis suggests that not all cognitive domains are equally affected by the negative effect of smartphones. The heterogeneity of the effects reinforces this finding. The nationality of the test subjects or the origin of the studies was identified as a further key variable. Our findings also indicate that the distracting effect of smartphones varies on the area studies and further research is necessary. In view of the present research results, it seems important that people in general, and especially children and adolescents in schools and classrooms, learn how to deal with the distracting potential of smartphones.
... The experimental mock-up that we used resembled a mobile device, and most texting takes place via mobile devices and so participants may have been more likely to rely on their experiences with text-based communication when responding on a mobile device. Alternatively, if participants were using a laptop or desktop, they may have still been engaging with (or perhaps simply distracted by the mere presence of) their mobile device, resulting in a relatively lower proportion of correct responses (see, e.g., Thornton et al., 2014). ...
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... In one study, participants were divided into three groups: one group was allowed to use their phones during a lecture, one group was asked to place their phones face down on the desk, and one group was asked to leave their phones outside the room. The results showed that the group that used their phones during the lecture had the lowest recall of the lecture material (Thornton et al., 2014). In fact, just the mere presence of a cell phone alone and the digital accessibility it represents itself was found to be distracting. ...
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In our modern society, digital devices, social media platforms, and artificial intelligence (AI) tools have become integral components of our daily lives, profoundly intertwined with our daily activities. These technologies have undoubtedly brought convenience, connectivity, and speed, making our lives easier and more efficient. However, their influence on our brain function and cognitive abilities cannot be ignored. This review aims to explore both the positive and negative impacts of these technologies on crucial cognitive functions, including attention, memory, addiction, novelty-seeking and perception, decision-making, and critical thinking, as well as learning abilities. The review also discusses the differential influence of digital technology across different age groups and the unique challenges and benefits experienced by children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly. Strategies to maximize the benefits of the digital world while mitigating its potential drawbacks are also discussed. This review aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the intricate relationship between humans and technology. It underscores the need for further research in this rapidly evolving field and the importance of informed decision-making regarding our digital engagement to support optimal cognitive function and wellbeing in the digital era.
... when not in use) can be detrimental to cognitive activities, such as visual search [4], cognitive capacity [5], and memory [6][7][8], thereby directly impairing the outcomes of cognitive activities [9][10][11]. ...
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Background Although cell phones can provide great convenience to our lives, research has shown that they can also affect our behavior, even when not in use. It seems that having a cell phone nearby may not be ideal when the user needs to concentrate on work. However, little is known about whether cell phone presence specifically impairs attentional control. Methods This study investigated whether cell phone presence can influence attentional control in the Navon task, which involves spatial switching of attention between global and local levels. Results It was found that the reaction time for all types of trials decreased when the participants had a cell phone nearby compared to when they had a mobile battery nearby. It was also found that phone dependency led to more incorrect responses among participants, but this effect was independent of the influence of phone presence on the Navon task performance. Conclusions These findings indicate that cell phone presence may have a positive influence on the perceptual process of the Navon letter, suggesting that the effects of phone presence are not always negative. One implication provided by this study is that it is possible to challenge the assertion that cell phones should always be excluded from the workplace by highlighting the positive effects of their presence.
... Stimuli were displayed on an AOC Free Sync 144 Hz monitor which was connected to a Dell Optiplex 7050 computer equipped with a fast PS/2 keyboard and running Windows 10. This time, participants gave their mobile phones for the duration of the experiment to the experimenter to prevent distraction by even the mere presence of their phone (e.g., Thornton et al., 2014). ...
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... Unfortunately, smartphone use represents risky behavior in the form of distractions (e.g., looking at phone, conversing on the phone, or listening to music) while commuting whether it involves driving cars, bicycles, motorcycles, or walking (Rahmillah et al., 2023). Active use of smartphones causes diminished attention and deficits in road users' performance (De Waard et al., 2010;Lamberg & Muratori, 2012;Thornton et al., 2014), and smartphone use is one of the main risk factors for accidents among all types of road users warranting continued research on the psychological causes that play a role (Yazdani et al., 2019;Nguyen-Phuoc et al., 2020). ...
... However, distractions are not only screen-related. For example, they can also be offline, like crying children in home office (Thornton et al., 2014). ...
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Smartphones are useful—albeit disruptive—devices. Cognitive control research conceptualizes smartphone disruption as external interference. Actively using a smartphone and hearing smartphone notifications while trying to accomplish a goal can impair performance. In the current project, performance was compared across these contexts. Participants were presented with reading passages and retention was assessed through a quiz. The reading portion was completed without interference (control), while a hidden smartphone vibrated, or while participants responded to text messages. Participants in the interference conditions performed equally poor and worse than those in the control condition. Completion time followed a different pattern. Participants in the vibration condition took longer to complete the quiz than those in the texting condition but did not differ from those in the control condition. Results are situated in Clapp and Gazzaley's (2012) interference framework and suggest that smartphone vibrations are an external stimulus that can trigger internal interference.
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Has the cell phone forever changed the way people communicate? The mobile phone is used for "real time" coordination while on the run, adolescents use it to manage their freedom, and teens "text" to each other day and night. The mobile phone is more than a simple technical innovation or social fad, more than just an intrusion on polite society. This book, based on world-wide research involving tens of thousands of interviews and contextual observations, looks into the impact of the phone on our daily lives. The mobile phone has fundamentally affected our accessibility, safety and security, coordination of social and business activities, and use of public places. Based on research conducted in dozens of countries, this insightful and entertaining book examines the once unexpected interaction between humans and cell phones, and between humans, period. The compelling discussion and projections about the future of the telephone should give designers everywhere a more informed practice and process, and provide researchers with new ideas to last years.
The Problem. Driver distraction is a leading cause of motor vehicle accidents, accounting for up to 25% of crashes on the roadway. Multitasking activities, such as concurrent use of a cell phone while driving, are increasingly becoming a significant source of such distraction. Role of Driving Simulators. Driving simulators provide an important research tool for systematically and safely studying driver distraction. Carefully constructed studies can be designed to establish a causal link between a multitasking activity (e.g., cell phone conversations, text messaging, passenger conversations) and driving impairment. Key Results of Driving Simulator Studies. We used a car-following paradigm to examine the effects of cell-phone conversations on simulated driving. We found that driving performance was negatively influenced by both hand-held and hands-free cell-phone conversations and that the impairment was equivalent for these two modes of communication. Compared to non-distracted driving conditions, the cell-phone driver’s brake reaction times were slower and they took longer to recover their speed that was lost following braking. When drivers were conversing on a cell phone, they adopted a compensatory strategy to attempt to counteract their delayed brake reactions; however, accident rates were still higher than when drivers were not conversing on the phone. This pattern of driving behavior differs qualitatively from that of the driver conversing with a passenger in the vehicle and from that of the driver using the phone for text messaging. Scenarios and Dependent Variables. We examined a number of dependent variables related to the safe operation of a motor vehicle (e.g., speed, following distance, reaction time, etc.). Quantitative analysis of the distribution of reaction times provides insight into the mechanisms underlying the cell-phone-induced dual-task interference. We also discuss a number of other scenarios and dependent measures that have been used to study distracted driving. Platform Specificity and Equipment Limitations. Finally, we address what we believe are some of the critical hardware and software issues relevant to the use of driving simulators to study the effects of multitasking on driving performance.
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While the subject of interruptions has received considerable attention among organizational researchers, the pervasive presence of information and communication technologies has not been adequately conceptualized. Here we consider the way knowledge workers interact with these technologies. We present fine-grained data that reveal the crucial role of mediated communication in the fragmentation of the working day. These mediated interactions, which are both frequent and short, have been commonly viewed as interruptions - as if the issue is the frequency of these single, isolated events. In contrast, we argue that knowledge workers inhabit an environment where communication technologies are ubiquitous, presenting simultaneous, multiple and ever-present calls on their attention. Such a framing employs a sociomaterial approach which reveals how contemporary knowledge work is itself a complex entanglement of social practices and the materiality of technical artefacts. Our findings show that employees engage in new work strategies as they negotiate the constant connectivity of communication media.
A solution is suggested for an old unresolved social psychological problem.