#9: Phones make you dumb, dissatisfied and dangerous

When we get our phones out while talking with friends, our relationship suffers. So why are we tempted?

The answer is brutal: we’re looking for something better. We’re subconsciously wondering whether there’s something else more important going on right now.

Way back in 1998, the term “continuous partial attention” (CPA) was defined by Linda Stone as the desire “to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment”. (This is not the same as multitasking, which is a deliberate attempt to be more productive by doing two tasks at once.)

CPA is clearly harmful to whatever it is we are trying to do in the moment, whether that is writing a book, talking to a friend or driving a truck. What’s not clear is how harmful it is to us. We think we can manage. We might be wrong.

David Strayer and colleagues at the University of Utah set up a driving simulator to compare outcomes when people drove while on the phone (even hands-free) or while drunk. Although drunk drivers were more aggressive, Strayer concluded: “cell-phone drivers exhibited greater impairment than intoxicated drivers”. No wonder the phone in the room is such a distraction to people trying to have a conversation.

“We pay continuous partial attention,” Linda Stone wrote, “in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING.” (Her capitalisation.) This was six years before Facebook launched and FOMO became a Thing. FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out, the mother of FOBO, Fear of Better Options, and FODA, Fear of Doing Anything.

The constant real-time connections that the mobile phone encourages has today caused an epidemic of FOMO, a permanent state of continuous partial attention, always on the look out for something better.

As Linda wrote: “[t]o be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.” The only problem is that, quite apart from the costs of dividing our attention, CPA and FOMO make us miserable.

In a 2013 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, researchers demonstrated the obvious: people suffering from FOMO are strongly likely to have higher levels of social media engagement. They also showed that FOMO is associated with distracted driving (and use of social media during lectures).

But worst of all, the study linked FOMO with “lower need satisfaction, mood and life satisfaction”. Sad face.

Further Reading

‘Continuous Partial Attention’. Linda Stone, 29 November 2009. https://lindastone.net/qa/continuous-partial-attention/.

Strayer, David L., Frank A. Drews, and Dennis J. Crouch. “A comparison of the cell phone driver and the drunk driver.” Human factors: The journal of the human factors and ergonomics society 48, no. 2 (2006): 381-391.

Przybylski, Andrew K., Kou Murayama, Cody R. DeHaan, and Valerie Gladwell. “Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out.” Computers in Human Behavior 29, no. 4 (2013): 1841-1848.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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