Monday, February 20, 2012

Dr. Obvious Reports: Cellphone Use Linked to Selfish Behavior

In what has to be one of the most questionable uses of research money EVAH, a recent study determined that (Surprise! Surprise!) people who spend a lot of time on their cell phones tend to be self absorbed and narcissistic. Gee, who'd have thunk? Here is Science Daily with the details:
Though cellphones are usually considered devices that connect people, they may make users less socially minded, finds a recent study from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Marketing professors Anastasiya Pocheptsova and Rosellina Ferraro, with graduate student, Ajay T. Abraham, conducted a series of experiments on test groups of cellphone users. The findings appear in their working paper, "The Effect of Mobile Phone Use on Prosocial Behavior."

Prosocial behavior, as defined in the study, is action intended to benefit another person or society as a whole.

The researchers found that after a short period of cellphone use the subjects were less inclined to volunteer for a community service activity when asked, compared to the control-group counterparts. The cell phone users were also less persistent in solving word problems -- even though they knew their answers would translate to a monetary donation to charity.

The decreased focus on others held true even when participants were merely asked to draw a picture of their cellphones and think about how they used them.

The study involved separate sets of college student subjects -- both men and women and generally in their early 20s. "We would expect a similar pattern of effects with people from other age groups," said Ferraro. "Given the increasing pervasiveness of cellphones, it does have the potential to have broad social implications."
Maybe I'm more sensitive to this issue because I take public transportation to work every day and see a large percentage of my fellow riders who spend the whole trip twiddling with their phones. They actually resemble zombies to me, so transfixed and unaware of their surroundings do they usually look. As I wrote yesterday about the Internet helping to destroy people's attention spans, you really have to wonder how much these devices are contributing to the rapid coarsening of our politics and the overall dumbing down of our culture, to say nothing of the obvious erosion of empathy on the part of a large percentage of the population.

Bonus: This was one of the funniest videos to appear on You Tube in recent years


  1. I'm curious as to the methodology of this study, although I'm not at all surprised by the correlation. The question is, does using a cell phone make one more self-absorbed and narcissistic, or are self-absorbed narcissists simply more likely to spend lots of time using cell phones.

    Probably works both ways.

    I think your comments on the societal impacts of these communication technologies (cell phone voice mail, texting, facebook, twitter, etc.) is a good one. These communication forms are increasingly allowing for essentially conscience-free distribution of communications, without providing the opportunity (or even the possibility) for meaningful feedback and dialog. The face-to-face (or even phone-based voice-to-voice) interactions that include human feedback. Something like 90% of face-to-face communication is non-verbal. This is almost entirely lost in all of these new communication mediums.

    We are fundamentally social creatures, much closer to packs, herds, and other social creatures than to the "lone-wolf" rugged individualists that modern American advertising would have us believe. What happens when you take 90% of the communication content away from a species that is social at its core? This is what social networking basically does. What the hell is social about that?

    Indeed, one could argue (quite convincingly I think) that it is likely that the Internet will one day be viewed as one of the most dangerous and disruptive developments in our history. This will not be due, as many likely believe, to its role in the Arab Spring and such. No, it will be due to the fact that the Internet inherently cements existing differences and tends to polarize society. On the net, most people tend to gravitate towards sites and opinions that reinforce or support their existing positions rather than actively seeking out opposing views or balanced analysis. Hard-core conservatives are not being engaged by progressive websites, other than for the sake of flaming, and vice versa. People believe what they want to believe and the internet, rather than actually serving to close the information gap, tends to reinforce and widen that gap.

    For all our supposed technological wisdom and wizardry, we seem intent on creating and adopting communication technologies that separate us and reduce our ability to effectively communicate.

    In short, the faster we seem to communicate, the less value the message seems to have.

    1. You sound like someone who has read -or should read- Neil Postman...especially Amusing Ourselves To death.

    2. Never read him, but I'll look into it. Thanks. I always enjoy hearing about new authors... I still read actual books, you know, on paper. ;-)

  2. "In short, the faster we seem to communicate, the less value the message seems to have."
    Beautifully put. And I agree, BH's ongoing commentary on 'communication' technologies is pretty much spot-on.

  3. Gahhh, have you hit a hot button issue for me!

    I ride the bus too. Everybody has some kind device plugged into their ears and are pecking at their cellphones incessantly--all of their senses completely oblivious to the world and people around them. They live in personal little cocoons of electronic devices utterly disconnected from their immediate environment.

    They stand around at the bus stop looking past each other all plugged into their gadgets as though no one else is there. They have loud meaningless cell phone conversations on the bus (can you hear me now?) in a dozen languages of babble seemingly immune from the other 50 passengers on the bus. It's all wildly annoying.

    I like to know what's going on around me, I can't stand having stuff shoved into my ears so I can't hear anything, I don't have a cell phone--you damn well can't call me if I'm not home.

    I don't see why these devices are so fascinating. I find them intrusive and irritating.


    1. I don't own a cell phone either- working in a hospital lab alone means lots of folks calling needing stuff; the last thing I want when I'm off is hear a phone ring...
      On a somewhat related note: I remember living in an apartment complex in Tucson and walking to my car along the common walkway at night and seeing apartment after apartment lit by nothing but the glow from TV screens- which is one reason I don't own one of those either...

    2. I actually enjoy the technology. I think a lot of it is very cool... when intelligently used.

      The problem is that many (most?) people seem to have lost sight of what the technology was really intended to do, namely, supplement human communication, not replace it. Instead, you see groups of teens (and even college kids and young professionals) standing in groups with everybody texting madly and nobody actually speaking to anybody in the group. Madness!

      It's as if people have found themselves relieved of the burden of actually having to consider the intent, effects, or complexities of real-time human-based communication. Those responsibilities have been replaced with the simple technical solution of ignore-type-ignore (ignore the context, type whatever comes to mind, ignore any impact/response). Human communication is SO much simpler when you can safely eliminate those pesky humans from the process. ;-)

      Still, from a purely technical perspective, Angry Birds on a Samsung Galaxy II tablet is simply stunning. I don't actually have one, but I watched a guy play just the other day. Breathtaking, really. ;-)

    3. What did Bill write - "transfixed and unaware..." breathtakingly empty but oh so shiny and new...

  4. Mid last year, all of a sudden, I couldn't go to the movies happily anymore. I used to be a Radio-Television-Film major. I loved the magic of seeing a movie on the big screen. I don't play video games so going to the movies was my entertainment expenditure, and I spent about a $1000 a year at the theater. I can scarcely go anymore. Back in the day, if someone lit up a flashlight in a movie theater during a movie, an usher would have kicked them out. Now the movie theaters are cheap and you have to leave the theater to get someone, now angered and missing the movie, too, because calling someone's attention to their glowing screen doesn't get them to turn it off. They get all stunned and offended, like, Oh! I can't believe!! I went to the movies to have a good experience, not to pay to have a bad one. I figure, in a good-size city, if a thousand other sets of $1000 a year (1 person @ $1000, a couple, a family) stop going to the theater and get Red Box for a dollar instead, or Netflix, that's a million dollars that theater's not getting.