a woman looking at her cell phone while driving

Cell Phone Distraction is About More Than Driving

There is a great new study from Bill Thornton out of the University of Southern Maine.

The mere sight of your mobile phone can distract you – even if you are not using it.

They had participants do some tasks that require attention. One was somewhat challenging and the other was relatively simple. In both conditions, half of the participants did the tasks with their cell phones on the table where they were working and half put them out of sight.

So here is the key finding. Even when the phone was not part of the task, wasn’t ringing, wasn’t notifying, wasn’t vibrating, wasn’t even turned on, it was still distracting. Just knowing it was there degraded participants’ performance by an average of 20%. The distraction wasn’t physically interacting with the phone and it wasn’t even the attention required by a conversation or constructing a text message. It was just wondering if anything was going on.

My Take

This finding doesn’t surprise me. Attention is a fickle phenomenon. It amazes me how much it can affect our performance. Pieces of your attention (or at least mine) are always allocated to external and germane channels that are not helpful to performance and often severely degrading. You are trying to have a conversation but you can’t help noticing an odd person off in the distance or a conversation going on at the table next to yours at the restaurant. Or even something as trivial as what to have for lunch. It seems to me that at any given time, no matter how important your current activity is, there are probably 10 different things that are taking up some of your attention capacity. 5% on this thought, 3% on that activity, 8% on that memory – it starts to add up. No wonder that the prevalence of adult onset ADD. It is not real ADD in the classic sense, it is just that we can’t really focus on anything. And our addiction to our cell phones is just more distraction.

Your Turn

What do you think? Do you find yourself distracted while at work, out with friends, at meetings, etc by your phone? By what else might be happening in the world that you are missing? Please share.

Image credit: ryan harvey

5 thoughts on “Cell Phone Distraction is About More Than Driving”

  1. I wonder if the level of distraction is less for people who have lock screen notifications turned on, e.g. a blue flashing LED indicating a txt has been received.

    I know that since I enabled these, all it takes to satisfy my curiosity about whether I have received anything is to glance at my phone, rather than physically picking it up and unlocking it to check. Picking it up and unlocking requires more effort, so I would often delay this until I had finished whatever task I was currently doing (which would probably describe a situation where the phone was receiving the most secondary attention because I had not yet confirmed that there was nothing ‘new’ to check). Perhaps enabling lock screen notifications (and by the same token increasing the salience of all notifications) could reduce some of those attentional costs.

    Then again it could be even worse with the lock screen notifications turned on, if it just leads to users glancing at their phones 10x more frequently!

  2. That is a really good point. I don’t think the research has checked every possibility. But the basic idea is just that knowing that there might be people out there wanted to talk to you gets somewhat of a permanent allocation of our attention. Without a cell phone in the vicinity at all, there is zero you can do about it, so that allocation is minimized. But even just having it there keeps some piece of your attention wondering.

  3. I believe the same goes for wearable bluetooth headphones or built-in bluetooth car stereo system that routes your call to car audio. Just the presence of these systems allocates a chunk of your brain. The question that comes to my mind often is that is there a way out to allocate your full attention to a particular task such as driving given that Cellular devices have become such an intrinsic part of us.

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