Another view: Smartphones making us dumber

3:58 PM, Jun. 2, 2013  |  Comments
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Do you find that family members or friends lose track of the conversation because they've turned away from you and toward their smartphone for a text message? Have you had to request a ban on smartphones and computer tablets from the dinner table in the name of actual face-to-face interaction?

How about your co-workers, or the people you supervise? Do you suspect that the same kind of toggling - bouncing between electronic conversation, social-media websites and the actual work - has a negative effect on productivity?

It won't surprise you, then, to know that a recent study at Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Lab found that distractions that interrupt work have a negative effect not only on productivity, but on the quality of the work.

In other words, our smartphones are making us dumber.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that it had commissioned Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology, and the psychologist Eyal Peer at Carnegie Mellon to design an experiment to measure the brain power lost when someone is interrupted.

"To simulate the pull of an expected cellphone call or email, we had subjects sit in a lab and perform a standard cognitive skill test," the Times' Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson wrote. "In the experiment, 136 subjects were asked to read a short passage and answer questions about it. There were three groups of subjects; one merely completed the test. The other two were told they 'might be contacted for further instructions' at any moment via instant message.

"During an initial test, the second and third groups were interrupted twice. Then a second test was administered, but this time, only the second group was interrupted. The third group awaited an interruption that never came. Let's call the three groups Control, Interrupted and On High Alert.

"We expected the Interrupted group to make some mistakes, but the results were truly dismal, especially for those who think of themselves as multitaskers: during this first test, both interrupted groups answered correctly 20 percent less often than members of the control group.

"In other words, the distraction of an interruption, combined with the brain drain of preparing for that interruption, made our test takers 20 percent dumber."

Yikes. We all know somebody we wouldn't want to be 2 percent dumber, much less 20 percent.

It's fine to "multitask" - if it helps you to call it that - in your free time. But if you're at work, or if your child is studying, it's time to take some positive steps for your, or their, best performance:

? Shut off the notifications on the smartphone while working. (It might not be a bad idea to shut most of them off all the time. No notifications means no distraction from your smartphone screen while you're driving, for example.)

? Better yet, put the smartphone in your pocket and leave it there. Make the kids leave theirs in the other room until the homework's done.

? If you're working at a computer, close all those other browser windows or tabs. No toggling. Whatever is on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest will still be there when you've accomplished the task at hand.

"There is some evidence that we're not just suckers for that new text message, or addicted to it; it's actually robbing us of brain power, too," the Times wrote regarding the Carnegie-Mellon study.

Curtail the robbery. Stop giving away your brain power.

It'd be nice, too, if you didn't bring your smartphone to the family meal. Give your thumbs a rest and give that old-fashioned method of communication - your own mouth - some exercise.

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