The Phone That Wasn't There: 11 Things You Need to Know About Phantom Vibrations

No, "Phantom Vibrations" are not a terrible "Beach Boys Meet the Munsters Cover Tribute Band."


Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer

You're sitting at work. Your phone vibrates in your pocket. As you reach for it, you look up... and see your phone, sitting on the table.

You just experienced a phantom vibration.

A new study was released this week on the phenomenon. Led by IU-PU Fort Wayne's Michelle Drouin, it was published in the journal of Computers in Human Behavior. It's only the third study on this new phenomenon of the mobile age, so we can fairly say that these are the eleven things we know about phantom vibrations:

1. Many, many people experience phantom vibrations. 89 percent of the undergrad participants in this current study had felt phantom vibrations. In the two other studies on this in the literature -- a 2007 doctoral thesis, which surveyed the general population, and a 2010 survey of staff at a Massachusetts hospital -- majorities of participants experienced phantom vibrations.

2. They happen pretty often. The survey of undergrads and medical professionals agree: about ten percent experience phantom vibrations every day. 88 percent of the doctors, specifically, felt vibrations between a weekly and monthly basis.

3. If you use your phone more, you're more likely to feel phantom vibrations. The 2007 graduate study found that people who heard phantom rings roughly used twice as many minutes and sent five times as many texts as those who didn't.

4. No one's really bothered by them. 91 percent of the kids in this new study said the vibrations bothered them "a little" to "not at all." 93 percent of the hospital workers felt similarly, reporting themselves "slightly" to "not at all" bothered. But this is where age differences start kicking in, because:

5. Among those surveyed, working adults try to end the vibrations much more often than undergrads. More than eighty percent of the undergrads made no attempt to stop phantom vibrations. This doesn't match the hospital workers's number at all: almost two-thirds of them tried to get the vibrations to stop (and a majority of that set succeeded, though the sample gets so small lessons become unclear).

7. If you react strongly and emotionally to texts, you're more likely to experience phantom vibrations. Droulin's study found that a strong emotional reaction predicted how bothersome one finds phantom vibrations. Emotional reactions to texts have been researched before: in a 2008 study of Japanese high school students, it was found to be a key factor in text message dependence.

8. And that strong emotional reaction means personality traits given to emotional reactions correlate with increased phantom vibrations. People who react more emotionally to social stimuli of any type will react more emotionally to social texts. And people who react more emotionally to social stimuli can be sorted into two large groups (with the usual attached caveats about the usefulness of psychological groups): extroverts and neurotics. But they can be sorted into these two huge groups for two totally different reasons.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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