Key Research

“Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” by Adrian F. Ward et al.

Key Takeaways:

  • The mere proximity of a phone diminishes one’s ability to focus on other tasks.
  • Cognitive costs are greatest for those who are most dependent on their phones.
  • To preserve attentional capacity, placing one’s phone in a different room tends to yield the best results.
  • Educational institutions need to pay attention to this given the emerging prevalence of “connected classrooms.”

LiveMore ScreenLess’ Summary:

Our devices entice us with an infinity pool of potentially relevant content and stimuli. As smartphones become relevant to more aspects of daily life, their presence can prove to be uniquely distracting. A 2017 study found that our attention suffers even when we aren’t actively using or consciously thinking about them.  

Participants were directed to place their smartphones in one of three locations (i.e. a separate room, in one’s pocket or bag, or face-down on the desk). They were then presented with tasks that assessed the use of limited capacity attentional resources, which describes one’s diminishing ability to remain focused on a given task as attention becomes more divided. The location of an individual’s phone had a significant effect on cognitive capacity: when subjects placed their phone in a separate room, they consistently performed better in assessments. 

To explain these findings, researchers suggest that most smartphone owners have developed an automatic attention response to their devices. These responses typically help us to attend to frequently relevant stimuli without always keeping them in mind, but may undermine performance: “inhibiting automatic attention—keeping attractive but task-irrelevant stimuli from interfering with the contents of consciousness—occupies attentional resources” (142). Because the mere presence of one’s smartphone can result in this “brain drain,” the authors recommend further research and outreach be focused on schools, “as educational institutions increasingly embrace connected classrooms” (151). 

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

Ward, A. F., et al., Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2) 2017.

Topics: Attention

Year: 2017

Participants: 548 undergraduates

Data Collection: spanned 2 weeks