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Susan Weinschenk Ph.D.
Susan Weinschenk Ph.D.

The Uncanny Power of Cell Phones to Disrupt Relationships

How can one person compete with a device linked to everyone you've ever known?

Source: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

Imagine that you are interviewing a candidate for a job in your office. You switch your mobile phone to silent mode and place it face down on a table several feet from where you and the candidate are sitting. This way you won't be disturbed, and you are demonstrating to the other person that you are giving them your full attention and won't be distracted.

Well, maybe not.

In a new study, researchers Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein examined how the mere presence of a cellphone affects the way people communicate with each other. Because people use their mobile devices to stay connected with people who are not in close proximity, it’s easy to build a conditioned response to the device and think of it as “everyone else.” And as long as the cellphone is visible, even if it is on the other side of the room, it represents its owner’s social network; this means that the person's entire social network is in the room. The phone triggers thinking about other people and events outside the immediate context, diverting attention away from the experiences occurring at the particular time and place.

Some of this may occur consciously, but some of this “not being present” occurs unconsciously. Social psychologists, including Przybylski and Weinstein, theorize that our devices can, therefore, have a negative impact on our person-to-person relationships.

To investigate this idea, they ran two experiments. In the first, people who did not know each other were assigned to pairs, asked to leave their personal belongings outside the room, and then told to spend 10 minutes discussing an interesting event that occurred to them during the past month. For half of the pairs, there was a mobile phone (not belonging to either individual) on top of a book. The book was on a nearby desk, but not in the direct visual field of the participants. The other half of the pairs had the same room setup, but without a mobile phone.

After the discussion, each participant filled out forms to measure things such as relationship quality, closeness, and positive affect. The pairs that had been in the room with a mobile phone felt less close to each other, and rated the relationship lower than the pairs in a room without a phone present.

In the second experiment, some of the pairs were instructed to discuss their thoughts and feelings about plastic holiday trees (a casual condition). Other pairs were instructed to discuss the most meaningful events of the past year (meaningful condition). The surveys included the same questions as in the first experiment, with additional questions added to measure trust and empathy.

When the mobile phone was in the room participants gave lower ratings on all the measures, including the new trust and empathy measures. But this effect was stronger in the meaningful-condition pairs than the casual-condition pairs.

The researchers concluded that simply placing the cellphone in the room interfered with the formation of a new relationship, and that the negative effect of the cell phone was stronger during a meaningful conversation.

So in the situation where you're interviewing someone for a job, the two of you likely won't bond as well if any phone is visible. If you really want to establish a meaningful rapport, follow these tips:

  • When you’re establishing a new relationship with someone, don’t have a cellphone in view.
  • When you’re trying to deepen an interpersonal relationship, or get someone to trust you, don’t have a phone in view.
  • When you’re in a meeting, model the behavior by not only turning off your cellphone, but actually putting it out of view.
  • When you’re running a meeting, ask everyone to turn off their phones and put them out of view.


Przybylski, Andrew K., and Weinstein, Netta. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(3), 237-246.

About the Author
Susan Weinschenk Ph.D.

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.,is a behavioral psychologist, author, coach, and consultant in neuropsychology.