Is your smartphone making you stupid?

Justin Daab Customer Experience Design

Maybe outsourcing to a second brain wasn’t such a good idea.

In the past few years, a number of long-term, peer-reviewed studies have come out that have begun to suggest that the piece of technology we once called the “Jesus phone” is really no savior at all. In fact, it may be, for our productivity and general mental acuity, just the opposite. Even if we ignore the socially inept habit of dodgily flicking about your smartphone screen while in the presence of other humans, there appear to be some very real changes that occur in the chemistry of the human brain that may suggest we rethink our attachments to these devices.

We’re not Pavlov. We’re the dogs.

I have no doubt that there was nothing other than benign intent in the original design and implementation of the iPhone™ and Android™ notifications systems. You get a message—a text, an email, an incoming chat—you get a notification. Seems fair enough. But it turns out that when presented with these notifications, visual or audible, our brains release a tiny bit of dopamine. Historically, we associated dopamine with pleasure. But more recent studies are linking the neurotransmitter to something more akin to “seeking.” Pleasurable or otherwise.

It seems dopamine is connected to general curiosity. And that, it seems, is where we get into trouble. Notifications, Twitter responses, Facebook newsfeeds, all provide a virtually endless cycle of instant gratification. Worse still, is that the dopamine system in our brains is heightened by unpredictability.

And finally, when we realize that the dopamine system is also especially sensitive to reward cues (the sound of an incoming text, that buzz of an incoming Snapchat story), it’s clear that, intentionally or otherwise, we have imposed on ourselves the mother of all dopamine loop generators. We all end up, in some sense, Pavlov’s dog, waiting for the bell to ring.

We’re constantly distracted.

Another study just published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research presents the case that even the presence of our smartphones within arm’s reach causes a measurable hit to cognitive ability—”brain drain” as the authors put it. And, as you might have guessed, the more addicted you are to using your device, the worse this specific malady seems to be.

“Results from two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence.“

-Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos
Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

The authors of the study conclude their report by saying that the increased cognitive load accompanying the presence of the smartphone might actually hinder consumers’ ability to evaluate marketing offers rationally, defaulting to more emotionally driven heuristics. The good news? That effect is less of an issue with advertising presented on the mobile device itself, since it is no longer a distraction, but the point of focus itself.

You’ll probably forget you read this anyway.

The final report I came across is by Russian security experts at Kaspersky Labs. They assert we’ve all become so accustomed to offloading to our smartphones that we are, in effect, losing our ability to actively transfer information into long-term memory. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Up to 60% of adult consumers could phone the house they lived in aged 10; but not their children or the office or their partners without first looking up the number.
  • One third of consumers polled were happy to forget, or risk forgetting, information they can easily find – or find again – online.
  • When faced with a question, a third (36%) of consumers would turn to the internet before trying to remember and a quarter (24%) would forget an online fact as soon as they had used it.
  • “Digital Amnesia” was equally and sometimes more prevalent in older age groups.
  • And none of us is actively doing much to protect the collection of data we’re storing on our computers and devices. (This point is not surprising. After all, this is Kaspersky talking, they make data protection software.)

So, how do we get our cognitive mojo back?

Simply put, we have all adopted behaviors with regard to our smartphones that, by nature of our evolutionary biology, are self-amplifying. Disrupting those stimulus and reward cycles will not be easily accomplished by casual means. You’ll probably need to create new, deliberate counteracting behaviors or strategies that are equal in measure to your level of dependency.

Moderate dependency: Schedule some alone time every night.

When you come home at night, put the phone on silent mode and into a closed cabinet. Never set it on your nightstand “just in case.” In other words, develop your ability to ignore the phone at times when being disconnected poses the lowest social or professional risk. Eventually, you should become more comfortable managing your daytime relationship.

Substantial dependency: Turn off notifications. Ditch social media.

The best way to break the dopamine reward cycle is to remove the reward triggers, e.g.: all of the dings, rumbles and text bubbles that tell our brains to prepare for seeking. Also, get rid of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or any other streaming-feed-based reward generators. Then feel your anxiety subside, your relationships deepen, the clouds depart and rainbows appear deep in your amygdala.

Severe dependency: Go “dumb phone” cold turkey.

If your smartphone has taken control of your life, your happiness and your freedom, it may be time for the nuclear option. For something more in the tactical nuke range, try the new Nokia 3310 reissue. You can still text and get email, but it’s certainly a barrier to getting lost in your phone for hours at a time. Or, if you require the full-on ICBM, get something like the LG Wine 4. Imagine the reduction of anxiety in your life with 6 hours of talk time and 15 days of standby battery life in your pocket.

Ultimately, no technology is good or bad.

You may think I’m some smartphone hating Luddite. Nothing could be further from the truth. The smartphone revolution has been very good to me. But, I understand I fall into the “Moderate Dependency” category. So, the phone goes into a cabinet, on a charging cable, around 7:30 every evening. Sure, I have FOMO. But less and less so for what’s happening on my phone.


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


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