Mobile Phones Hinder Cognitive Capability And Process

Is owning a 'smart' phone making you 'dumb'?

mobile phones hinder cognitive capability
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As soon as I regain my senses after a great night’s sleep, before I even open my eyes, my hand automatically, out of daily habit, reaches my bedside table, fumbling around to touch the familiar kind of plastic; my beloved phone, my friend through both tiring and leisurely days. I put it on ringer from silent, and dutifully check my notifications. The melodious ding-ding that has to continue throughout the day, begins. What I call melodious ding-ding, my elders complain of as cacophony.

Over the past decade alone, communication has seen explosive, exponential growth. We already know the stats, the figures, and numbers, repeating them to emphasize would be redundant. However, what I want to speak of, is not the increase of communication but rather, a form of its impact on us.

Recent studies and experimentation carried out at McCombs School of Business, University of Texas (Austin), were aimed at finding out if mobile phones hinder our cognitive abilities. The results were positive. The cognitive capacity of the people was challenged and lowered by the presence of their cell phones in proximity. Let us find out how.

The Experiment

Adrian Ward (co-author of the paper), Assistant Professor at McCombs, in collaboration with the co-authors of the research paper, conducted experiments to examine how well smartphone users could exhibit mental ability in the presence of their cell phones.

This experiment was carried out with around 800 smartphone users.


In one experiment, the participants were asked to take a computer-based test that required some focus so as to hold data and comprehend it to score well. They were arbitrarily instructed to either keep their phones in their pockets or bags, on their tables face-down, and a few of them were even instructed to leave their phones in another room. The instructions were random and separate for all participants. The only common instruction made was to turn the smart phones to ‘silent’.

The performance results were the best for the participants who left their phones outside their room. They also outperformed the ones who had their phones in their bags/pockets. The worst performers were the ones who had their phones placed on their desks.

Going by these results, the researchers concluded that the mere presence of smartphones reduces cognitive functioning, even if people are completely focused on their assigned work. Ward explained that the more the smartphone is noticeable, the more is the decrease in a person’s cognitive capability. He claims that the brain is not thinking about the smartphone, but is rather using up cognitive resources to be able to not think of the smartphone. That process of requiring oneself to not think about it is causing a brain drain.


Another experiment was conducted in order to determine how a person’s self-declared dependence on their smartphone affected their cognitive capacity. The participants had declared, prior to the experiment, how much they depended on their smartphone throughout the day.

Participants had to perform the same computer tests that were mentioned in the former experiment. This time they were randomly asked to either place their phones on the desk, face-up, or in their pockets/bags. Some were asked to leave their phones outside the room, and a few were also instructed to turn their phones off.

It was found that the ones who were the most dependent on their smartphones performed worse as compared to the less-dependent participants, only when their phones were within sight, that is, on their desks or in their pockets/bags, hence leading the researchers to the conclusion that the more a smart phone is in sight, the less the cognitive capacity. The phone being on or off did not matter in any of the cases.

The participants’ brains were actively working to not pick up or use the phone while they were in sight. In Ward’s words, “It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones. The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”

Personally, since I know that I am accustomed to checking my phone for notifications every now and then, I can relate very well to the conclusion of this experiment. I do believe that mobile phones hinder cognitive capability. May be the convenience that we are used to receiving from our smartphones actually takes away the immediate need for us to be more (or less) cognitively functional and since we are into our phones so much, the maladaptation is now becoming a part of us. My observation though.

How dependent do you think you are on your smartphone? If you were a part of the above experiment, would you contribute similar results or do you think differently? Let us know your views in the comments below.

After all, it’s about our smartphones, it’s about us.

Journal Reference:

Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelaet Gneezy, Maarten W. Bos.
Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity
Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2017; 2 (2): 140 DOI: 10.1086/691462