A phone on a distant table can still distract you. A phone on a distant table can still distract you. A phone on a distant table can still distract you. (Photo: Nukeaf / Shutterstock)

How your turned-off phone can still be distracting you

Surprising new research reveals that people perform better on tasks when their phone is literally in another room.

Facebook, Snapchat, email: We all know that constantly checking our phones can distract us from other tasks. Who among us hasn't tried to scroll through our newsfeed while simultaneously chatting with our boss? Excuse me, what was that? Can you repeat that? Sure thing, I'll get right on that.

But did you know that just having your phone nearby – in the same room – can cause your cognitive capacity to be significantly reduced? That's the surprising finding that was just published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

The scientists conducted several experiments with nearly 800 smartphone users to try to measure how well people can complete tasks when they have their smartphones nearby, even when they're not using them. The researchers found that participants with their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk, and they also slightly outperformed those participants who had kept their phones in a pocket or bag.

What's more, the researchers also found that it didn't matter whether a person's smartphone was turned on or off, or whether it was lying face up or face down. Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach reduced a person's ability to focus and perform a task. Why? Because part of their brain was actively working to not pick up or use the phone.

"It's not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones," said Adrian Ward, a University of Texas professor who worked on the study. "The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity."

This new research follows other recent research that debunks the myth of multitasking. We may think we can handle several tasks at once without any reduction in quality, but science has found the opposite to be true. The problems arise when too many tasks are in front of you and a bottleneck of information occurs in the brain's prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for choosing which information to process and when. Research has actually shown that it takes about four times longer to complete a task when also doing something else.

These contrarian findings – a turned-off phone still distracts you, multitasking isn't really productive – are at the heart of the research being done by Israeli professor Ayelet Gneezy, one of the authors of the new cell phone study. Like fellow Israeli Dan Ariely, Gneezy studies consumer behavior in fields as diverse as exercise to winemaking. She won a prestigious award for her research involving a "pay what you want" model at a Disney amusement park.

As for their current research, Gneezy and her collaborators point out that most people keep their smartphones nearby and in sight. In particular, this may have an impact in classrooms across the country.

"Younger adults — 92% of whom are smartphone owners — rely heavily on smartphones," the researchers wrote. "Given that many of them are in school, the potential detrimental effects of smartphones on their cognitive functioning may have an outsized effect on long-term welfare. As educational institutions increasingly embrace “connected classrooms," the presence of students’ mobile devices in educational environments may undermine both learning and test performance — particularly when these devices are present but not in use. Future research could focus on how children, adolescents, and young adults are affected by the mere presence of personally relevant technologies in the classroom."

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