Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Loose Lips Sink Friendships: Cell Phones Impair Inhibitory Control in Social Situations

Loose Lips Sink Friendships: Cell Phones Ruin Social Situations

Sometimes I say the first thing that pops into my head. Whoops. I don't mean to be rude, but sometimes I can't stop that comment from flying out of my mouth. If only I had better inhibitory control. Cell phone use may impair inhibitory control and allow more rude comments to slip out.

Inhibitory control is crucial for social interactions. But inhibitory control is thought to be one of the last cognitive abilities to develop. That's one reason children say the darndest things (they are also still learning the rules of social interaction). Children comment on all the odd behavioral quirks, misshapen bodies, and strange clothes that they notice. As adults, we may think exactly what children say. But we have inhibitory control. We can stop those comments from slipping out - inhibitory control breaks the link from mind to mouth. That link from mind to mouth is still unbroken and uncontrolled in children.

Of course adults are not always perfect paragons of inhibitory control. Alcohol, for example, decreases inhibitory control. Isn't it funny to watch your normally well-behaved friend dance on the table while wearing the lampshade? Alcohol decreases inhibitory control of speech as well. Adults say the darndest things when they've had a few drinks. Have you ever had to apologize to someone the morning after for the thing you said the night before? If only you had retained your inhibitory control. Without inhibitory control you may say all sorts of things to sink that friendship.

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I recently came across a cool example of failed inhibitory control. William von Hippel and Karen Gonsalkorale (2005) studied inhibitory control in a very tricky social situation - being presented with a new food. Children, for example, are lousy at inhibitory control when presented with new food. They say "gross", "eww", and "no way" while their faces curl into the primary emotion of disgust. Von Hippel and Gonsalkorale presented adults with a new food. Normally this isn't a problem. We can limit that "gross." They presented the food under either a divided attention condition (trying to hold a series of numbers in mind) or in a full attention condition (simply focus on the new food).

The new food was a Chinese delicacy - a chicken foot. The foot was presented close to the person's face by either a white experimenter or by a Chinese experimenter who claimed the food was a traditional dish and one of her personal favorites. The researchers then coded both the verbal and behavioral blurts (that is, letting out a negative reaction). For both behavior and verbal blurts the pattern was the same - in the divided attention condition people made more negative comments to the Chinese experimenter. Normally, they inhibited their negative responses to keep from offending the Chinese experimenter. But when attention capacity was compromised, they couldn't stop themselves - the comments slipped out while their faces curled into the primary emotion of disgust. They behaved like children.

Without attention capacity, the participants lacked inhibitory control. They could not stop the look of disgust, the blurted comment.

Now we can explain how cell phones may sink friendships. Inhibitory control requires attentional capacity. Anything that limits attentional capacity may also decrease inhibitory control. Cell phones use may decrease inhibitory control because cell phone use often occurs in a divided attention context. You are texting one person while conversing with another. You do not have your full attention devoted to either conversation. With limited attention resources, you should expect the occasional rude blurting of some awkward comments.

Much like drunks, cell phone users may lack the inhibitory control needed to stop the rude comments. Loose lips sink friendships and cell phones cause loose lips.

 

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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