Just Thinking About Your Cell Phone Makes You More Selfish

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"To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York's exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift," writes Michael Kimmelman in a recent New York Times essay. "To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation."

He is not being hyperbolic. Grand Central, with its soaring walls and golden halls and Mad Men-esque allure, exalts the people who pass through its portals, inspiring them to be just a little more polite, a little more dignified, a little more productively self-consciousness. Penn, dark and dank and aggressively gray, a subterranean temple to the horrible, has the opposite effect: It closes us into ourselves, inspiring rudeness and occasionally crudeness and occasionally, if my most recent trip there is any indication, shouting matches among middle-aged men jockeying for seats on the 6:15 to Long Branch.

The point being: Spaces matter. They don't merely contain us; they guide our behavior. And that goes for our digital surroundings, too: the environments we're building for ourselves, brick by portable brick, psychic spaces mortared and mediated by our cell phones and tablets.

But what are those digital environments doing to us? What kind of spaces are they creating -- and how are they affecting the way we behave within them?

A new study has some grim news on that front. Researchers at the University of Maryland have conducted a series of experiments examining the effects of cell phone usage on "prosocial behavior": behavior intended to benefit other people or society as a whole. Their findings? Overall, cell phone usage tended to discourage, rather than inspire, prosocial behavior. After being asked to draw their mobile phones and to describe, in detail, the previous day's interaction with them, research subjects were less inclined to volunteer for a charity when asked to do so, compared to their control-group counterparts. The cell-minded subjects were also less able than a control group to locate "others-related" words in a word search puzzle. They were also less persistent in a puzzle-completion task -- even though they knew their answers would translate to a monetary donation to charity.  

As Anastasiya PocheptsovaRosellina Ferraro, and Ajay Abraham conclude in the working paper documenting their findings, "We propose that the use of a mobile phone, a device that is designed to connect people, will have an unintended negative effect on prosocial behavior." In other words: The cell phone environment is more Penn Station than Grand Central.

The researchers speculate that cell-using subjects' relatively selfish behavior stems from the murky divide between the social and the prosocial. Connection to others doesn't necessarily mean beneficial connection to others; while mobile phones are definitely social, they may not be so in ways that are productive. "The satisfied need to connect to others is likely to have a negative effect on subsequent intentions and behaviors towards other people," Pochepstova and Rosellina write, adding that "several recent papers provide support for this idea."

There's a lot of literature to the contrary as well, though. While it's true that mobile phone use has been correlated with social withdrawal among professional athletes -- and while, rather infamously, they give us a handy excuse to ignore each other in person (fauxning, anyone?) -- there have also been studies suggesting that mobile phone usage can encourage charitable giving

And it's also worth emphasizing that this is a working paper, and that the findings have yet to undergo peer review or journal publication.

Anecdotally, though, the findings do ring true. Mobile devices, observed in the wild, seem to encourage feelings of entitlement in their owners. They connect us to distant people, but remove us from the people who are standing there next to us. In that, they may be creating a new paradox: the social introvert -- the person who craves connection, but who craves it mostly as mediated through the constraints of the phone or the Twitter feed, or the Facebook page.


Images: Reuters, Flickr.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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