While smartphones have revolutionized the way business is done, employees having the Internet in their pockets all day also has the obvious downside of making limitless distractions available to them at work. Whether they’re on social media, streaming movies and television shows, or getting addicted to mobile games like Pokémon Go and HQ Trivia, smartphones offer employees all kinds of ways to waste time. It’s no wonder that so many employers say their employees’ smartphone use decreases productivity in their workplace.
Even when we aren’t actively using our smartphones, new research suggests that merely having them in sight can be distracting. At the Harvard Business Review, business and behavioral science scholars Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos present the results of an intriguing study they conducted, which suggested that the mere presence of a smartphone reduced people’s cognitive abilities:
Our intervention was simple: before completing [a series of cognitive] tasks, we asked participants to either place their phones in front of them (face-down on their desks), keep them in their pockets or bags, or leave them in another room. Importantly, all phones had sound alerts and vibration turned off, so the participants couldn’t be interrupted by notifications.
The results were striking: individuals who completed these tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets. In last place were those whose phones were on their desks.
We saw similar results when participants’ phones were turned off: people performed worst when their phones were nearby, and best when they were away in a separate room. Thus, merely having their smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity—on par with effects of lacking sleep.
Discussing why this might be so, the authors posit that “the costs of smartphones are inextricably linked to their benefits”: The constant connection they provide to other people and a whole world’s worth of information suggests that “the mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names—they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention.” Attempting to resist this impulse, they posit, results in diminished cognitive function.
The findings of this study are particularly notable because they relate the attentional pull of smartphones not to specific ways in which they are used, but to the technology itself. In other words, smartphones may be distracting us not just because they contain Facebook or Netflix, but also because of the work purposes for which we use them, such as email. The broader impact of smartphones on our cognition may also be related to how their presence influences our sleep habits and the stress of feeling unable to disconnect from work.