Even if you go all day without touching your cell phone once, just having it visible nearby may distract you from complex tasks, according to new research in the journal Social Psychology.
In the first part of the study, which looked at a group of more than 50 college students, participants were asked to complete different motor tasks with the study leader's cell phone visible. In the second, participants completed motor tasks with their own cell phones visible. Performance on complex tasks suffered in both conditions when compared to control groups with no visible cell phone.
The sight of a cell phone reminds people of the "broader social community" they can access via texting and the internet, says study author Bill Thornton.
“With the presence of the phone, you’re wondering what those people are doing,” says Thornton, a University of Southern Maine professor. “Even if it’s just mental, your focus is not on the task at hand, whether it be trying to write an article, get this spreadsheet set up, or just socializing; your mind is elsewhere."
While performance on complex tasks suffered, the presence of cell phones did little to keep people from successfully finishing easy tasks. Thornton says the same applies to texting while driving.
"You could probably text and drive somewhat safely if you’re on a straight road, and there’s no traffic, and you take your time," says Thornton. Of course, those conditions rarely exist.
The study builds on previous research that suggests that having your cell phone out reduces the quality of social interaction, even if you don't engage with your phone. Having the phone out stifled "interpersonal closeness and trust" and kept study participants from feeling empathy for one another, a 2012 study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found.
"Mobile communication devices such as phones may, by their mere presence, paradoxically hold the potential to facilitate as well as to disrupt human bonding and intimacy," it concluded.
Cell phones play a significant role in today's social engagement, but Thornton nonetheless suggests that people just put the device away for awhile. "I’m not sure how many people’s text messages are that important," he said. "Unless you’re an advisor to the president and we have a national emergency, you can wait an hour to get a text."