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Jan Hills

Head Heart + Brain


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Employees who keep their smartphone close by are reducing their brain power


At Academics’ Corner we explore the latest HR research coming out of the academic sector that HR professionals need to know about. Here, Jan Hills, Partner at Head Heart + Brian, outlines a study that shows how the proximity of smartphones can impact performance at work.

We all know how annoying it can be when someone keeps looking at their phone, but what is it doing to your brain power when you keep the phone by your desk?

University of Austin in Texas assistant professor Adrian Ward conducted experiments with nearly 800 smartphone users to measure the impact of their phone being nearby on their ability to complete cognitive tasks.

In the experiments, the researchers asked participants to sit at a computer and take a series of tests. The tests were designed to measure the brain’s ability to hold and process data. Before beginning, participants were randomly instructed to place their smartphones either on the desk face down, in their pocket or personal bag, or in another room. All participants were instructed to turn their phones to silent.

Having a phone within sight or within easy reach reduces the ability to focus and perform tasks.

In the first experiment 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.

In a second experiment, researchers looked at how strongly a person feels he or she needs to have a smartphone in order to get through a typical day and how this belief impacted their cognitive capacity. Firstly, participants self-rated their dependence on their phone. The rest of the experiment was set up as before except some participants were also asked to turn off their phones.

Those who are more dependent on their phones do not perform as well

The researchers found that participants who were the most dependent on their phones performed worse compared with their less-dependent peers. But this was only the case when they kept their smartphones on the desk or in their pocket or bag, not when the phone was in another room.

Ward and his colleagues also found that it didn’t matter whether a person’s phone was turned on or off, or whether it was lying face up or face down on a desk. Having a phone within sight or within easy reach reduces the ability to focus and perform tasks because part of their brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone.

Don’t just turn off alerts, turn off your phone and put it somewhere out of sight.

The findings suggest that just having the phone nearby reduces cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand.

Ward said “As the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases. Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process – the process of requiring yourself to not think about something – uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”

What should be done?

Don’t just turn off alerts, turn off your phone and put it somewhere out of sight and preferably in another room. And if you are in HR consider your policies on use of phones in meetings and even in the office.

Original research

‘Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity’. Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos in Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

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Jan Hills


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