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Nearly half of American smartphone owners say they can’t live without it. I guess not, when on average, Americans check theirs 85 times a day. Everyone* knows that using smartphones is a distraction. But few know that even when we turn them off, they continue to interrupt us just by being nearby. A study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research says the persistent presence of a smartphone has a cognitive cost. Even if it’s powered off, and even if we actively and successfully ignore it, its nearness “reduces available cognitive capacity,” science-speak for “brain drain.”

To maximize the value of having it off, we must put it away, preferably at some distance. 

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, says we need to be selective in what we pay attention to because we can’t pay attention to everything. When our smartphones are nearby, we automatically shift away from analytic thinking (System 2) and take the easier path of System 1’s lazy thinking. 

Why does this matter?

Besides the obvious (our ability to produce more meaningful work when we concentrate), when we are operating on System 1 thinking, we are more influenced by advertising messages and we end up buying more things.

As our smartphone use increases, our dependence does, too. 

And as our dependence increases, a larger and larger share of our attention is devoted to keeping our eyes and ears open for the next interruption. The little corner of our minds that is always “on” leaves us with less processing power to use on the tasks at hand.

Here’s a nifty correlation. 

The more we depend on our phones, the more our cognitive abilities suffer when they’re around and the more we would benefit from their absence. Here’s another: those whose attention and cognition would most benefit from putting their phones away are the ones least likely to do so. 

Any good news? 

Independent research shows that one benefit of using apps to track and filter our smartphone usage is that we use them less often. The other, and perhaps more important benefit is that they help us redefine our devices as being less important.


*Actually, everyone doesn’t know smartphones are a distraction. According to a Pew study, only one in four of us knows this is true. Look around next time you’re in a group of four – the other three don’t know.

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