Mobile Media & Communication
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Cellphone relevance in
The effects of cellphone
use on conversational
Ryan Cummings and Torsten Reimer
Communication and Cognition Lab, Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue University, USA
The use of cellphones in conversations is ubiquitous. Although the overarching view of
the social effects of cellphones in conversations appears to be negative, some research
has also reported positive outcomes. The Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis predicts
that effects of cellphone use on conversational satisfaction depend on the function of
cellphones within a conversation. When a conversation partner integrates cellphone
use into the conversation (integral use), conversational satisfaction is predicted to be
higher than when the cellphone is used for a purpose unrelated to the conversation
(incidental use). Two vignette studies provide support for the Cellphone Relevance
Hypothesis and specify boundary conditions of the cellphone effect based on the
involvement of respondents.
Mobile phones, interpersonal communication, multimodality, interaction, conversation
What are the effects of the use of cellphones in conversations? The overarching view of
these effects appears to be negative, both within academic research and society at large
(Turkle, 2015). For example, according to the Pew Research Center (2015), 82% of
adults believe cellphone use decreases conversational satisfaction. When cellphones are
regularly used in conversations among partners, they have the potential to reduce rela-
tional satisfaction, relational closeness, and life satisfaction while increasing relational
Ryan Cummings, Communication and Cognition Lab, Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue
University, 100 North University Street, Beering Hall Room 2114, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA.
958437MMC0010.1177/2050157920958437Mobile Media & CommunicationCummings and Reimer
2 Mobile Media & Communication 00(0)
turmoil (Duran et al., 2011; Kelly & Miller-Ott, 2014; Miller-Ott et al., 2012; Misra
et al., 2014; Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013). The use of phones within face-to-face inter-
actions is so common that researchers have coined the phenomenon phubbing, a con-
tracted form of phone snubbing (Roberts & David, 2016).
Yet as its name connotes, phubbing inherently carries a negative weight to the use of
phones within face-to-face interactions. Indeed, phubbing researchers have focused
extensively on the negative side of cellphone use in conversations. Scholars have identi-
fied negative psychological and behavioral constructs related to phubbing such as low
self-esteem, lack of self-control, and internet addiction (Benvenuti et al., 2020). Related
research has focused on the negative outcomes of phubbing such as decreased conversa-
tional intimacy (Vanden Abeele et al., 2019), negative impression formation, and
decreased conversational quality (Vanden Abeele et al., 2016). McDaniel and Coyne
(2016) coined the intrusion of technology in relational interactions as technoference,
finding in a study of 143 co-habiting or married women that participants frequently
reported negative outcomes of technology use.
However, there is some research on the effects of cellphone usage outside of the phub-
bing literature that has failed to identify negative effects, and some has even found posi-
tive outcomes. Although the phubbing literature has focused on the “mere use” of a
cellphone within a conversation (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013), research that identified
positive effects of cellphone use included users’ attitudes and perceptions towards cell-
phones. For example, Allred and Crowley (2016) found it was not the mere presence of
a cellphone within a conversation but rather the recollection of the cellphone’s presence
that affected conversation satisfaction; this finding was replicated in a follow-up study
(Crowley et al., 2018), suggesting that interlocutors’ attitudes toward cellphone use may
affect conversational satisfaction more than its mere use.
Several lines of research examining attitudes toward cellphones in conversations and
relationships have challenged the “mere use” assumption common to the phubbing lit-
erature. As cellphone users can respond to texts, phone calls, emails, instant messages,
and social media comments at any time, people have come to expect responses instantly
(Weinberger, 2008). As a result, returning texts, searching for information on the web,
and general use of cellphones within face-to-face interactions have become more socially
acceptable (Duran et al., 2011; Miller-Ott & Kelly, 2015), as Gonzales and Wu (2016)
discovered in their study, which demonstrated the general non-effects of cellphone use
on social ostracism, except for those who have strong attitudes against cellphones.
The cited studies suggest that not all uses of a cellphone within face-to-face interac-
tions may constitute phubbing; moreover, the function of the cellphone within the con-
versation may be important to consider beyond its “mere use.” In this regard, focus group
data from Miller-Ott and Kelly (2015) suggest the function of the cellphone use can
influence perceptions of cellphone use within the conversation. Survey data from Kelly,
Miller-Ott, and Duran (2019) supported this finding, showing that certain cellphone
behaviors are perceived as being more face threatening than others; for example, contact-
ing a boss or responding to a family member’s text message was viewed as less face
threatening than repeatedly looking at the phone or playing a game. Additionally,
research has found that less frequent cellphone use is less threatening to the conversation
than repeated, constant use (Chotpitayasunondh & Douglas, 2018).
Cummings and Reimer 3
Building on this literature that goes beyond the “mere use” of cellphones, the current
project set out to identify and test conditions in which the use of cellphones in conversa-
tions increases and conditions in which it decreases conversational satisfaction. Drawing
from Uses and Gratifications Theory (Ruggiero, 2000) and Grice’s (1975) maxim of
conversational relation, the Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis predicts that the effect of
the use of a cellphone on conversational satisfaction depends on whether the cellphone
is viewed by the conversational partner as incidental or integral to the conversation. In
the remainder, we describe the basic tenets of the Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis and
introduce a model that specifies a potential moderator and mediator of the proposed
cellphone effect on satisfaction. We then report two empirical studies that tested the
hypothesis using two vignette studies and conclude with a discussion and suggestions for
The Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis
The Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis is based on the idea that within a face-to-face con-
versation, the effects of using a cellphone on the satisfaction of a conversational partner
depend on the perceived function of the cellphone use. Specifically, these effects depend
on whether the cellphone use is viewed as integral or incidental to the conversation. The
key difference between incidental and integral use lies in whether the information from
the cellphone is relevant to the conversation. The Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis is
informed by two related lines of research—Uses and Gratifications Theory and research
on the relevance principle.
Uses and Gratifications Theory has provided an enduring basis for media research,
from the decades of print and television media to more recent social media (Katz et al.,
1973; Ruggiero, 2000). In its essence, Uses and Gratifications Theory proposes that
audiences choose to use certain media to meet specific needs, so its focus has rested far
more on users’ motivations to use certain media than on direct effects of the media itself.
Although typologies for classifying various uses vary, Rubin (2009) proposed eight core
needs: passing time, companionship, escape, enjoyment, social interaction, relaxation,
information, and excitement.
In contrast to the phubbing literature, Uses and Gratifications Theory views media
users as an active audience (Rubin, 1993). In focusing on the negative role of cell-
phones within face-to-face interactions, phubbing literature has claimed that commu-
nicators feel forced to use their cellphones in face-to-face interactions, either by lack
of self-control (Benvenuti et al., 2020) or cellphone addiction (Karadağ et al., 2015).
Typically, phubbing literature has painted cellphone users as a passive audience.
Conversely, Uses and Gratifications Theory claims that people, including those who
use cellphones in conversations, actively seek out media to meet certain needs. From
this perspective, interlocutors may choose to use cellphones in conversations for
prosocial and other gratifying reasons.
Based on these considerations, the current study set out to examine the role of positive
needs that communicators may seek to meet by using a cellphone within a conversation.
Although people use cellphones for various purposes in a conversation (Hiniker et al.,
2016; Joo & Sang, 2013), communicators may be using their cellphones to demonstrate
4 Mobile Media & Communication 00(0)
sociability toward their conversation partner or to find relaxation away from the other
partner (Leung & Wei, 2000). The partner’s perceptions of these uses may influence
conversational satisfaction more than the mere use of the cellphone.
A second, related line of research that provides a rationale for the Cellphone Relevance
Hypothesis comes from research on conversational relevance (Sperber & Wilson, 1986),
which also informs the expected effects of integral and incidental use within a single
face-to-face interaction. Rooted in Grice’s (1975) maxim of conversational relation, the
relevance literature suggests that interlocutors assume utterances will be relevant to the
conversation. It stands to reason that if someone is using a cellphone to look up informa-
tion relevant to the conversation, their presentation of this information will be perceived
by the partner as integral to the conversation by recognizing the relevance of the utter-
ance to the conversational topic (Tracy, 1984). However, if someone is using a cellphone
for reasons not related to the conversation, the presentation of this information will be
perceived as incidental to the conversation by recognizing the information is not relevant
to the conversational topic.
H1: Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis: People will report higher conversational satis-
faction when they perceive their conversational partner to be using a cellphone for
integral (i.e., relevant) than incidental (i.e., irrelevant) use.
Several variables may moderate and mediate this proposed cellphone effect. We
focused on one construct that has been shown to moderate and mediate a variety of
conversational characteristics on outcomes—the involvement of a conversation part-
ner (e.g., see David & Roberts, 2017; Coker & Burgoon, 1987; see Figure 1). Coker
and Burgoon (1987) defined involvement as the “degree to which participants are
enmeshed in the topic, interpersonal relationship, and situation” (p. 463). Drawing on
the distinction between issue involvement and interaction/conversational involvement
(Coker & Burgoon, 1987), we hypothesized that issue involvement may moderate the
effect of perceived cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction, whereas
Figure 1. Conceptual model illustrating the conditional direct effect of perceived cellphone
relevance on conversational satisfaction and the indirect effects of cellphone relevance on
conversational satisfaction through perceived interaction involvement (other-orientation and
Cummings and Reimer 5
perceived interaction involvement may mediate the effect. Involvement serves as an
intuitive basis for exploring conditional effects as both topic importance (Przybylski &
Weinstein, 2013) and attentiveness (David & Roberts, 2017) have been demonstrated
as salient to understanding cellphone effects in face-to-face interactions.
Issue involvement as a moderator
Issue involvement has been shown to moderate message effects in other contexts (Chen
& Tsai, 2008; Quick et al., 2011). Accordingly, it can be expected that cellphone rele-
vance will have stronger effects on conversational satisfaction under conditions of high
issue involvement than conditions of low issue involvement. For example, perceptions
of incidental use are predicted to yield lower conversational satisfaction when two
friends are discussing the prospect of a new job for one of them (i.e., a topic high in issue
involvement) than when they are discussing the new job of a friend neither of them have
seen in a while (i.e., a topic low in issue involvement). The inattentiveness of the conver-
sation partner is assumed to have stronger negative effects when they are both more
concerned about the conversational topic. Thus, the following hypothesis is proposed.
H2: The effect of perceived cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction will be
stronger if issue involvement is high than if issue involvement is low.
Interaction involvement as a mediator
Whereas issue involvement is proposed as a moderator, interaction involvement is sug-
gested as a potential mediator. Interaction involvement, also called conversational
involvement, has been operationalized through two relational dimensions—immediacy
and other-orientation (Burgoon & Hale, 1984). Immediacy concerns the nonverbal
behaviors that communicate social closeness or distance between communicators
(Burgoon & Hale, 1984; Wiener & Mehrabian, 1968). Other-orientation, also called
altercentrism (Coker & Burgoon, 1987), is “the tendency to be attentive to, adaptive
toward, and interested in other(s) during interaction” (Spitzberg & Hecht, 1984, p. 578).
Theoretically, it can be expected that communicators will perceive greater attentive-
ness from their partner when they are perceived to be using the phone for integral use
than incidental use. Moreover, in incidental use, the information draws the cellphone
user away from the conversation and the conversational partner, thus decreasing the
immediacy and other-orientation. However, with integral use, the cellphone user inte-
grates the information from the conversation with the phone. Based on these considera-
tions, we offer the following hypotheses:
H3: Communicators will perceive greater interaction involvement (immediacy and
other-orientation) from their partner when they perceive their conversational partner
to be using a cellphone for integral than incidental use.
H4: Perceived interaction involvement (immediacy and other-orientation) will medi-
ate the effect of cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction.
6 Mobile Media & Communication 00(0)
Study 1 tested the Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis (H1) and the moderating effect of
issue involvement (H2). Participants completed an online study in which they were
asked to imagine themselves in a face-to-face conversation with a friend who introduces
a cellphone to the conversation, either for integral or incidental use. In addition to manip-
ulating cellphone relevance and issue involvement, the study also measured participants’
anticipated conversational satisfaction.
Participants (n = 283) were recruited through an online research system at a large
Midwestern university and received extra credit toward a communication class for their
completion of the study. The mean age of participants was M = 19.69 (SD = 1.49), with
a balance of males (n = 147) and females (n = 136). Most participants were either
Caucasian (n = 185) or Asian/Pacific Islander (n = 71).
The study consisted of a 2x2x3 experimental design with the factors cellphone rel-
evance (integral vs incidental use), issue involvement (high vs low), and the topic
that was covered in the scenario (trip, salary, and apartment). Conversational satis-
faction was measured as the dependent variable. Cellphone relevance and issue
involvement were manipulated between subjects. The three different topics were
manipulated within subjects.
Cellphone relevance. Cellphone relevance consisted of two levels, integral use or inci-
dental use, and was manipulated between subjects. Cellphone relevance was manipu-
lated through the scenarios by varying the relevance of the hypothetical conversational
participant’s response to the conversation. Integral messages were directly related to
the conversation, whereas incidental messages were unrelated to the conversation (see
The following is a sample integral use scenario: “Imagine you are grabbing a bite
to eat with one of your friends from work at your favorite Mexican restaurant. As you
are talking about your lives outside of work, you talk about your living conditions and
mention that you are moving to a different state for a new job. You don’t know anyone
there and are worried about having to get an apartment on your own. You wonder if
apartments there are more expensive, but neither of you know. Your friend grabs their
phone, and after scrolling on it for a few seconds says, ‘Apartments look about twice
the price there!’”
For each integral use scenario, a parallel incidental use scenario was constructed. In a
respective incidental use scenario, the scenario was identical in all respects except the
final sentence. Whereas in the integral condition, the cellphone user stayed within the
same topic, in the incidental condition, the friend referred to a different topic after look-
ing at the phone, such as saying: “Oh no! It is supposed to rain tomorrow.”
Cummings and Reimer 7
Issue involvement. Issue involvement concerns how cognitively involved participants
are in the conversational topic. Issue involvement was manipulated through whether the
topic personally affected the participants (high) or not (low) and was manipulated
between subjects (Sereno, 1968). For example, the low involvement condition for the
apartment topic concerned the price of new apartments by a participant’s workplace that
they had noticed but did not plan to move to. Conversely, the high involvement condi-
tion for apartment concerned the price of apartments that the participants considered
Conversational topic. To test the effects of cellphone relevance across various con-
texts, each scenario had a different conversational topic. The three topics were taken
from Head and Eisenberg’s (2011) large-scale survey measuring college students’
main uses of the internet: planning a vacation trip, salaries of various jobs, and renting
Manipulation check and dependent variable
Issue involvement. Before participants read through the three scenarios and answered
the cellphone relevance and satisfaction items, they were given six scenarios and
rated their interest in each conversational topic. These scenarios were derived
from the integral use scenarios, yet they did not include the part about the introduc-
tion of the cellphone into the conversation. This procedure was used to test the effec-
tiveness of the manipulation of issue involvement before introducing the utterances
manipulating cellphone relevance. Issue involvement was measured separately for
each scenario using Zaichkowsky’s (1985) semantic differential. The scale asked
participants to rate their perceptions of the conversational topic on semantic differ-
ential scales ranging from 1–7, consisting of the following pairs of attributes: rele-
vant, irrelevant; important, unimportant; and uninterested, interested (Cronbach’s
α = .87).
Conversational satisfaction. Participants reported their anticipated conversational satisfac-
tion after imagining each scenario. The measure for conversational satisfaction consisted
of three items taken from Hecht’s Conversational Satisfaction (1978) scale, ranging from
1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree): I was satisfied with the conversation; I did not
enjoy the conversation; and I would like to have another conversation like this one. The
second item was reverse coded. The three answers were averaged to form a composite
measure (Cronbach’s α =.84).
Perceived cellphone relevance. To measure participants’ perceptions of cellphone rele-
vance in the scenarios, they were asked to imagine three conversational scenarios and
complete the following items, ranging on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly
agree): My friend used the phone to look up information relevant to the conversation; My
friend used the phone to enrich the conversation; and My friend combined information
from the phone with the conversation. Responses to those three items were averaged for
each scenario (Cronbach’s α = .83).
8 Mobile Media & Communication 00(0)
The study consisted of two sections. The first section focused on the manipulation check
of issue involvement, ensuring validity of the manipulation before introducing the cell-
phones into the scenarios. Each participant read through all six generated scenarios—the
high involvement and low involvement version of each of the three topics, reporting their
perceptions of issue involvement. The second section focused on the effects of the inde-
pendent variables on conversational satisfaction. Participants were assigned to one of
four conditions (i.e., integral use/low involvement; integral use/high involvement; inci-
dental use/low involvement; or incidental use/high involvement). Each participant was
shown three scenarios in their condition, one for each topic (i.e., trip to Florida, salary for
a new job, and apartments). After reading through each of their three scenarios, partici-
pants reported their perceptions of cellphone relevance and conversational satisfaction.
The means and standard deviations for perceived conversational satisfaction, cellphone
relevance, and issue involvement are reported in Table 1.
Manipulation check. The manipulation of cellphone relevance and issue involvement was
effective. Incidental scenarios (M = 3.56, SD = 1.28) were viewed as significantly lower
in cellphone relevance than integral scenarios (M = 5.99, SD = .70), t(281) = -19.88, p
< .001, d = 2.36. Likewise, low involvement scenarios (M = 4.06, SD = 1.08) were
viewed as significantly lower in issue involvement than high involvement scenarios (M
= 6.04, SD = .79), t(281) = -27.41, p < .001, d = 3.27.
Test of the Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis. To test H1 and H2, a 2x2 analysis of variance
was conducted on conversational satisfaction, with the factors of cellphone relevance
and issue involvement. The responses to the three topics were highly correlated, with the
conversational satisfaction scores across the three topics factoring together (Cronbach’s
α = .84). Thus, for each participant, the satisfaction responses were averaged across the
three scenarios (see the means and standard deviation for satisfaction in Table 1). Anal-
ysis of variance yielded a significant interaction effect and two significant main
effects. As expected, anticipated conversational satisfaction was higher for integral use
(M = 5.33, SE = .08) than for incidental use (M = 3.56, SE = .08); F(1, 279) = 217.28,
p < .001, partial η2 = 44. Therefore, H1 was supported.
As shown in Table 1 and in support of H2, this effect of perceived cellphone relevance
on conversational satisfaction was stronger when issue involvement was high rather than
low, yielding a significant interaction of issue involvement and cellphone relevance, F(1,
279) = 11.91, p < .001, partial η2 = .04. Therefore, H2 was also supported.
Study 1 tested the Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis and the moderating effect of issue
involvement. The manipulation of cellphone relevance was effective, as was the
Cummings and Reimer 9
theory-driven yet novel manipulation of issue involvement. H1 claimed that participants
would report higher conversational satisfaction for perceived integral use than incidental
use of the cellphone in the conversation, and the data from Study 1 supported this claim.
Not only was the effect of perceived cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction
significant, but it was large.
H2 claimed an interaction effect between cellphone relevance and issue involve-
ment on conversational satisfaction and was also supported. As expected, the effect
of cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction was stronger for high involve-
ment than for low involvement—the difference in the mean reports of conversational
satisfaction between integral use and incidental use was greater for high than low
Study 2 sought to replicate the findings from Study 1 and test all proposed hypotheses.
Specifically, this study aimed to replicate the effect of perceived cellphone relevance
on satisfaction and the hypothesis that issue involvement would moderate the effect of
cellphone relevance. In addition, the study aimed to explore if interaction involvement
may mediate the effect of cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction (see
Table 1. Descriptive statistics of Study 1 conversational satisfaction, cellphone relevance, and
issue involvement (n = 283).
Variable M SD M SD M SD M SD
Trip 5.17 1.14 5.45 1.04 4.74 1.17 3.47 1.30
Salary 5.48 1.03 5.40 1.06 3.74 1.32 3.20 1.27
Apartment 5.43 .97 5.06 1.20 3.76 1.31 3.01 1.36
5.36 .93 5.30 .87 4.07 .94 3.23 1.09
Trip 6.06 .70 5.92 .95 5.27 1.01 3.45 1.76
Salary 6.05 .75 6.01 .87 3.51 1.49 2.92 1.48
Apartment 6.10 .66 5.83 .93 3.41 1.53 2.72 1.56
6.08 .62 5.92 .75 4.07 .98 3.03 1.34
Trip 3.72 1.61 5.61 1.18 3.72 1.51 5.78 1.12
Salary 3.75 1.43 6.18 .94 3.62 1.46 6.16 1.01
Apartment 4.72 1.36 6.18 1.04 4.70 1.40 6.31 .93
4.08 1.04 5.99 .82 4.04 1.12 6.09 .75
10 Mobile Media & Communication 00(0)
Figure 1). To test the effects proposed in the figure, Study 2 utilized the same design
as Study 1 but added measurements of the proposed mediators, immediacy, and other-
orientation. Mediation is best tested through experimental block designs and multi-
wave data (Pirlott & MacKinnon, 2016). Using a cross-sectional design as in Study 1,
we aimed to explore if the data are consistent with the proposed mediation hypothesis
without providing a direct test of the proposed mediation hypothesis (for limitations of
such a design, see Jacoby & Sassenberg, 2011; Pirlott & MacKinnon, 2016). Thus,
Study 2 aimed to replicate Study 1 and explore the role of interaction involvement as
a potential mediator.
Study 2 sampled participants (n = 278) using Amazon MTurk. Participants were com-
pensated $1 for completion of the study. Although the MTurk population is not truly
representative of the general population (e.g., MTurk participants tend to be more edu-
cated and less employed), their overall performance of cognitive tasks is similar to the
general population and justified their utilization in examining cellphone effects (Chandler
et al., 2014; Horton et al., 2011). Given there are large age differences in the understand-
ing and use of technology (Chan, 2014), the current study focused on young adults as
cellphones are embedded in their daily interactions. Participants had to be between ages
18 and 25 to complete the study (M = 22.58, SD = 1.78; 156 males and 122 females).
Most participants were either Caucasian (n = 142) or Asian/Pacific Islander (n = 73),
with Hispanics (n = 26), African Americans (n = 25), Other (n = 8), and Native
Americans (n = 4) also completing the study.
Cellphone relevance, issue involvement, and the three topics were manipulated in the
exact same way as in Study 1.
Dependent variable, manipulation check, and mediator
Conversational satisfaction. The dependent variable of the study, the anticipated conversa-
tional satisfaction, was measured in the same way as in Study 1. However, the second
item (“I did not enjoy the conversation”) did not correlate with the other two items in this
second study, lowering Cronbach’s α below .40 for some scenarios. Therefore, this item
was dropped, and conversational satisfaction was computed by averaging across the
remaining two items (Cronbach’s α = .82).
Perceived cellphone relevance. Participants completed a manipulation check of percep-
tions of cellphone relevance, using the scale developed in Study 1. The three items for
the scale were reliable, Cronbach’s α = .84. The manipulation of cellphone relevance
remained effective in this study, as incidental scenarios (M = 3.45, SD = 1.16) were
viewed as significantly lower in relevance than integral scenarios (M = 5.94, SD = .85),
t(276) = -20.38, p < .001, d = 2.45.
Cummings and Reimer 11
Issue involvement. Three items were used to measure perceptions of issue involvement,
and the scale was reliable (Cronbach’s α = .90). To control for possible effects of measur-
ing issue involvement on conversational satisfaction, only half of the participants com-
pleted the measure of issue involvement, in which they read through the first part of all six
topics, up through the introduction of the cellphone into the conversation. As expected,
measuring issue involvement did not affect reported conversational satisfaction. The aver-
age reports for conversational satisfaction were nearly identical for those who completed
the manipulation check (M = 4.65, SD = 1.35) and those who did not (M = 4.63,
SD = 1.47). Furthermore, the manipulation check for issue involvement demonstrated the
effectiveness of the manipulation as scenarios low in issue involvement (M = 4.31,
SD = 1.16) were viewed as significantly lower in issue involvement than those high in
issue involvement (M = 6.04, SD = .90), t(135) = -15.59, p < .001, d = 2.68.
Interaction involvement. The proposed mediator in the model, interaction involvement,
consisted of two components: other-orientation and immediacy. Participants rated the
perceived interaction involvement of their conversational partner in the scenarios. Other-
orientation was measured using Guerrero’s (1997) three-item semantic differential meas-
ure for attentiveness, ranging from 1 (low) to 7 (high): The other person was (inattentive/
attentive) during the conversation, The other person was (distracted/focused) during the
conversation, and The other person was (unalert/alert) during the conversation. Imme-
diacy was measured using two items from Guerrero’s (1997) semantic differential scale
measuring interest in the interaction: The other person was (detached/involved) during
the conversation, and The other person was (bored/interested) in the conversation.
Other-orientation and immediacy were very highly correlated, r(276) = .95, p < .001,
indicating one factor (i.e., interaction involvement) rather than two separate factors.
Consequently, the items for other-orientation and immediacy were averaged to give one
score for interaction involvement.
Perceived realism. Participants also reported their perceived realism for the scenarios. A
measurement for realism was included in this study to see if there were systematic differ-
ences in perceived realism between scenarios across the experimental conditions and to
be able to control for differences in perceived realism by including the variable as a
covariate. The three-item scale was derived from Burleson et al. (1986) and consisted of
the following items: To what degree was the situation you just read (scale: 1–7) Not very
believable/very believable, Not easy to imagine myself in this situation/easy to imagine
myself in this situation, and Not very realistic/very realistic? The scale was reliable
(Cronbach’s α = .90). Realism was treated as a covariate in analyses.
Participants perceived the scenarios as generally realistic, with all means above
5.50 on a seven-point scale; the minimum was M = 5.52, SD = 1.42, and the maxi-
mum was M = 6.27, SD = .99. Across all scenarios, those low in issue involvement
(M = 5.95, SD = 1.01) were viewed as equally realistic as those high in issue
involvement (M = 6.00, SD = 1.02), t(276) = -.44, p = .66. Although integral use
conditions were perceived as somewhat more realistic than incidental use scenarios
(t(276) = 2.04, p < .05, d = .25), both integral use scenarios (M = 6.10, SD = .92)
and incidental use scenarios (M = 5.85, SD = 1.09) were viewed as quite realistic.
12 Mobile Media & Communication 00(0)
Participants completed the study through Amazon MTurk. Half of the participants
reported their issue involvement for the six topics; the other half were not shown this
section of the survey. The next section consisted of the measurement of conversational
satisfaction through the scenarios. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the four
experimental conditions of the between-subjects factors cellphone relevance (integral vs
incidental use) and issue involvement (high vs low). As in Study 1, each participant was
shown three scenarios, one for each of the three topics (trip, salary, and apartment). After
reading through each scenario, participants reported their anticipated conversational sat-
isfaction, perceived interaction involvement of their conversational partner, and percep-
tion of cellphone relevance.
Study 2 sought to test all hypotheses represented in Figure 1, replicating the test of the
Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis. The effects were tested using Hayes’s (2013)
PROCESS macro, Model 15, which tests for a model with one independent variable, one
dependent variable, one mediator, the interaction effect between the independent varia-
ble and the moderator, the interaction effect between the mediator and the moderator, and
covariates. In this study, the model included the continuous variable conversational sat-
isfaction as the dependent variable, the dichotomous variable cellphone relevance (0 =
incidental; 1 = integral) as the independent variable, the dichotomous variable issue
involvement (0 = low involvement; 1 = high involvement) as the moderator, and the
continuous variable interaction involvement as the mediator. As a covariate, perceived
realism was included. The results of the PROCESS analysis are summarized in Table 2.
As in Study 1, conversational satisfaction was similar across the three topics (α = .82),
and responses of each participant were averaged across the three scenarios.
H1 claimed that participants would report higher conversational satisfaction for inte-
gral than incidental use of the cellphone. The PROCESS analysis revealed a significant
direct effect of cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction, b = .50, p < .01. The
direction of the effect was as hypothesized, with integral use yielding higher conversa-
tional satisfaction (M = 5.56, SD = .92) than incidental use (M = 3.64, SD = 1.22).
Therefore, H1 was supported, and the effect of cellphone relevance on conversational
satisfaction was replicated from Study 1.
H3 claimed that cellphone relevance would affect perceptions of interaction involve-
ment. The process model revealed that cellphone relevance had a strong effect on percep-
tions of interaction involvement, b = 2.05, p < .001, R2 = .52. The means indicated that
this effect was in the hypothesized direction, with interaction involvement higher for
integral use (M = 5.81, SD = 3.69) than incidental use (M = 3.69, SD = 1.30). Therefore,
H3 was supported.
H4 claimed that perceived interaction involvement would mediate the effect of cell-
phone relevance on conversational satisfaction. As illustrated in Table 2, the PROCESS
analysis indicated a significant effect of cellphone relevance on interaction involvement
(b = 2.05, p < .001) and a significant effect of interaction involvement on conversational
Cummings and Reimer 13
satisfaction (b = .68, p < .001). Using 5,000 bootstrapped samples (Hayes, 2009), the
indirect effect of cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction through interaction
involvement was significant for low issue involvement (1.40, 95% confidence interval
(CI) (1.12, 1.71)) and high issue involvement (1.53, 95% CI (1.25, 1.82)). Although the
indirect effect was significant, the direct effect of cellphone relevance on conversational
satisfaction remained significant in the model, b = .49, p < .01. Therefore, the data are
consistent with the interpretation that interaction involvement partially mediated the
effect of cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction (see H4).
H2 predicted that issue involvement would moderate the effect of cellphone relevance
on conversational satisfaction. As Table 2 shows, the PROCESS macro revealed that
issue involvement moderated the effect of perceived cellphone relevance on satisfaction;
the interaction of issue involvement and cellphone relevance was significant, b = -.45, p
< .05. However, contrary to H2, cellphone relevance had a significant effect on conver-
sational satisfaction for low issue involvement, b = .50, p < .01, but not for high issue
involvement, b = .05, p = .75. Issue involvement did not have a direct effect on conver-
sational satisfaction, b = -.10, p = .76. Therefore, H2 was not supported in Study 2.
Study 2 tested the main and moderated effects of cellphone relevance on conversational
satisfaction and explored a mediation. Although the study replicated some of the findings
from Study 1, it also extended the study and provided further clarification of the modera-
tion effect. Most importantly, Study 2 replicated the support for the Cellphone Relevance
Table 2. Summary of Study 2 analysis predicting interaction involvement and conversational
Variable b SE 95% CI
Dependent Variable = Interaction involvement
Cellphone relevance 2.05*** .39 (1.79, 2.31)
Realism .32*** .07 (.19, .44)
Dependent Variable = Conversational satisfaction
Interaction involvement .68*** .06 (.56, .81)
Cellphone relevance .50** .17 (.17, .83)
Issue involvement –.10*** .32 (-.72, .52)
Realism .09*** .04 (.01, .17)
Interaction involvement x issue involvement .07*** .08 (-.09, .22)
Cellphone relevance x issue involvement –.45* .23 (-.89, -.001)
n = 278.
CI: confidence interval.
*p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.
14 Mobile Media & Communication 00(0)
Hypothesis from Study 1. Both studies not only found that integral use yielded higher
reports of conversational satisfaction than incidental use but also demonstrated a strong
The results concerning issue involvement were different in Study 1 and Study 2.
Both Study 1 and Study 2 found an interaction effect between issue involvement and
cellphone relevance, yet this effect was different between the studies. In Study 1, the
hypothesized effect was supported: the effect of cellphone relevance on conversational
satisfaction was stronger for high involvement than low involvement. Although signifi-
cant, this effect was small. In Study 2, however, cellphone relevance had an effect on
conversational satisfaction for low involvement but not for high involvement. This
moderation effect was the opposite direction from the hypothesized effect in H2. These
differing results may be due to the inclusion of interaction involvement and its interac-
tion effect with issue involvement in the model. According to this interpretation, the
significant yet counterintuitive interaction is describing the part of the effect of cell-
phone relevance on conversational satisfaction that is not covered by interaction
involvement. The small effects from Study 1 and the conflicting results from Study 2
suggest that issue involvement does not have a clear moderating effect of cellphone
relevance on conversational satisfaction. In addition, as hypothesized, integral use
yielded significantly higher reports of interaction involvement (i.e., immediacy and
other-orientation) than did incidental use.
We started out to test the effect of cellphone use on conversational satisfaction and its
effects through two forms of involvement. Two studies provide new findings that add to
and enrich the theoretical understanding of cellphone use in face-to-face interactions.
Major findings and contributions of the studies are summarized, and future directions for
research are given below.
The studies served the central purpose to test the Cellphone Relevance Hypothesis,
which claims that perceptions of cellphone use integral to a conversation will yield
higher conversational satisfaction than perceptions of incidental use. Asking participants
to imagine a variety of different scenarios, this hypothesis was tested and supported
twice. In both studies, the effect of cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction
was strong, with integral scenarios yielding systematically higher anticipated conversa-
tional satisfaction than incidental scenarios.
Theoretically, this project drew from Uses and Gratifications Theory (Ruggiero,
2000) to explore if different uses of the cellphone could have negative or positive con-
versational effects. The project challenged the focus of much of the phubbing literature
(Roberts & David, 2016) that the “mere presence” (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013) of a
cellphone in a conversation necessarily yields negative social outcomes. Rather, the find-
ings from the reported studies support the suggestion of other literature that the commu-
nicative effects of cellphones in conversations are more complex and cannot be reduced
Cummings and Reimer 15
to the mere presence (Allred & Crowley, 2016; Miller-Ott & Kelly, 2015). More specifi-
cally, the reported studies demonstrate that how the cellphone is used in the conversa-
tion—whether in an integral or an incidental fashion—affects conversational satisfaction,
with integral use offering positive communicative effects. This finding supports the
active audience assumption of Uses and Gratifications Theory (Rubin, 1993), demon-
strating that communicators who actively seek to enrich the conversation may do so by
integrating a cellphone into their conversation.
Drawing upon the relevance research within interpersonal communication (Tracy,
1984), cellphone relevance can be inferred through the relevance of the utterance after a
conversational partner uses their cellphone. These findings demonstrate that although
incidental use and general interruptions from cellphones may harm face-to-face interac-
tions, integral use has the potential to enrich face-to-face conversations and the satisfac-
tion that communicators experience within them.
Drawing upon Coker and Burgoon’s (1987) distinction between issue and interaction
involvement, each form of involvement was expected to have different effects on con-
versational satisfaction. In short, the mediating effect of interaction involvement was
consistent with the observed data; the moderating effect of issue involvement was incon-
clusive and not supported throughout.
Study 1 proposed a theory-driven (Sereno, 1968) yet original manipulation of issue
involvement. Study 1 and Study 2 found somewhat different and small effects for issue
involvement. In Study 1, issue involvement had a small interaction effect with cellphone
relevance on conversational satisfaction. In Study 2, the direction of the effect was
reversed in that cellphone relevance had a direct effect on conversational satisfaction for
low involvement but not high involvement. The observed strong mediating effect of
interaction involvement in the model may provide one explanation for this reversed
effect. Taken together, the role of issue involvement as a potential moderator of the
effects of cellphone relevance on conversational satisfaction are inconclusive.
Past research has reported that the use of cellphones in conversations may have mixed
conversational effects (Kelly et al., 2019). Study 2 suggests the introduction of a cell-
phone into a conversation does not necessarily lower perceptions of engagement to the
extent that participants recognize their partners are able to integrate the phone into the
conversation in a way that increases engagement. Furthermore, as suggested by past
research (Hecht, 1978), the exploratory inclusion of interaction involvement as a poten-
tial mediator is consistent with the interpretation of the data that interaction involvement
had an effect on conversational satisfaction, partially mediating the effect of cellphone
relevance on conversational satisfaction.
The studies offer a theoretical and empirical enrichment of the understanding of cell-
phone use within face-to-face interactions. Indeed, the conceptualization of the Cellphone
Relevance Hypothesis and the related findings allow for further extension for studying
16 Mobile Media & Communication 00(0)
interpersonal and technologically mediated communication. Both the findings and the
limitations of the conducted studies allow for further research in two main areas: (a) the
extension of the hypothesis to other communicative domains and (b) to further our
understanding of boundary conditions on cellphone relevance effects.
First, the studies revealed the positive impact of integral use on conversational satisfac-
tion, yet future research should seek to replicate and extend the Cellphone Relevance
Hypothesis to other contexts. The use of the scenarios strongly indicated the effects of
cellphone relevance, yet the utilization of the scenarios has methodological strengths and
limitations. The inclusion of three topics suggests the cellphone relevance effects are not
restricted to very specific contexts, and the inclusion of realism as a covariate in Study 2
showed that participants were able to imagine themselves in the conversational situations.
However, in Study 2, participants perceived integral use scenarios as somewhat more
realistic than incidental use scenarios, perhaps because the former met the conversational
relevance maxim (Grice, 1975). Future research may test cellphone relevance effects
through lab experiments with a confederate. Furthermore, future research should consider
amended measurements of conversational satisfaction as Study 2 discovered a low relia-
bility alpha for the scale for two of the 12 scenarios. Although the low alphas may have
been due to the careless reading of some participants (e.g., missing the word “not” for one
item), including additional items in the scale could improve the reliability of the scale.
Second, Study 2 explored interaction involvement as a mediator and, thus, offers a
possible path that can explain how cellphone relevance may affect conversational satis-
faction. At the same time, the study did not find clear support for issue involvement as a
moderator. Future studies may explore additional moderators of the Cellphone Relevance
Hypothesis. Possible candidates for moderators include the closeness of the relationship
of the communicators (Duran et al., 2011) and the age of the communicators (Chan,
2014), which may moderate the effect of cellphone relevance on conversational satisfac-
tion. In summary, future research can continue to explore the complexities of cellphone
use in face-to-face conversations, focusing not only on the detriments but also the poten-
tial benefits that were reported in this study.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
Ryan Cummings https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4003-1488
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Ryan Cummings completed his PhD in Communication at Purdue University, where Torsten
Reimer served as his advisor. His research focuses on interpersonal and mediated com-
Torsten Reimer is professor of Communication and Psychology and Director of the Communication
and Cognition Lab at Purdue University. The lab employs psychological methods to test theories
about communication and decision making in individuals, social groups, and organizations.