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How Are Digital Devices Changing the Way We Think?

Reading on a digital device causes people to think less about the big picture.

A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock
Source: A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock

Do you prefer to read books on a digital device or a traditional clothbound hardcover? Personally, I’ve noticed that when I read a book on paper, my cognitive relationship to the reading material is much different than when I’m reading something on a digital device.

Much the same way the analog sound of vinyl has a warmth and texture that is lost on a low-fidelity download from iTunes, I find that reading something on paper has a richness and depth that is lost on a digital screen. I've also noticed that I tend to daydream more, and allow my mind to wander, when I’m holding a book in my hands. However, my mind stays more laser-focused when I'm reading something on a digital tablet or computer screen.

Well, it turns out that my anecdotal experiences as a reader were recently confirmed in the Tiltfactor lab at Dartmouth College. The researchers warn that tablet and laptop readers should beware of their digital devices in some situations. Using digital platforms—such as tablets, laptops, and smartphones—to read material, can make you more inclined to focus excessively on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly and looking at the bigger picture.

The May 2016 study, “High-Low Split: Divergent Cognitive Construal Levels Triggered by Digital and Non-digital Platforms,” will be presented this week at the Computer Human Interaction (CHI) 2016 conference in San Jose, California. The findings of this study serve as yet another wake-up call to various ways digital media may be affecting our likelihood of abstract thoughts and may be stunting both fluid intelligence and divergent thinking.

Co-authors Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan have been focused on answering the basic question of whether processing the same information on a digital versus non-digital platform triggers a different baseline "interpretive lens" or mindset that would influence construals of how readers interpret information.

Reading On a Non-Digital (Print) Platform Facilitates Abstract Thinking

A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock
Source: A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock

For this study, the Dartmouth researchers printed reading materials using the same print size and format in both the digital and non-digital (print) versions. The research was comprised of four studies that evaluated how information processing is affected by each platform and included more than 300 participants, ages 20 to 24 years old.

Reading comprehension and problem solving success were strongly affected by the type of platform used. Three highlights on the differences between digital and non-digital platforms from this study are summed up in the following examples:

1. Participants were asked to read a short story by author David Sedaris on either a physical printout (non-digital) or in a PDF file on a PC laptop (digital). Then, they were asked to take a paper-and-pencil reading comprehension pop quiz. For the abstract questions, participants using the non-digital platform scored higher on inference questions with 66 percent correct, as compared to those using the digital platform, who only got 48 percent correct. But, on the concrete questions, participants using the digital platform scored better with 73 percent correct, as compared to those using the non-digital platform, who got 58 percent correct.

2. Participants were asked to read a table of information about four, fictitious Japanese car models on either a PC laptop screen or paper print-out. Then, they were asked to select which car model was superior. 66 percent of the participants using the non-digital platform (printed materials) reported the correct answer, as compared to only 43 percent who got it right using the digital platform.

3. Triggering a more abstract mindset prior to an information processing task on a digital platform appeared to help facilitate a better performance on tasks that require abstract thinking.

In a statement, Geoff Kaufman said, "There has been a great deal of research on how digital platforms might be affecting attention, distractibility and mindfulness, and these studies build on this work, by focusing on a relatively understudied construct. Given that psychologists have shown that construal levels can vastly impact outcomes such as self-esteem and goal pursuit, it's crucial to recognize the role that digitization of information might be having on this important aspect of cognition.”

Mary Flanagan added, "Compared to the widespread acceptance of digital devices, as evidenced by millions of apps, ubiquitous smartphones, and the distribution of iPads in schools, surprisingly few studies exist about how digital tools affect our understanding—our cognition. Knowing the affordances of digital technologies can help us design better software. Sometimes, it is beneficial to foster abstract thinking, and as we know more, we can design to overcome the tendencies—or deficits—inherent in digital devices.”

Conclusions: Digital and Non-Digital Reading Platforms Have Pros and Cons

One of the most important takeaways from this study seems to be that for times when you need to be laser-focused on facts and figures associated with crystallized intelligence and concrete questions, a digital platform will optimize your reading comprehension. However, for times when you want to facilitate more fluid intelligence and abstract thinking, reading something printed on paper may encourage abstract thoughts and connecting the dots in new and useful ways.

Although it isn’t always convenient (and can be expensive) in my opinion, this study suggests that in a perfect world, we'd all still be reading fiction on printed paper, where the computer-human interaction is a non issue. For me, this research is also a call to action as a parent to make sure that my 8-year-old daughter's bedroom continues to be crammed full of books—which open up her mind and imagination to abstract thoughts—as she gets older.

Hopefully, these empirical findings and my personal examples will help you fine-tune how you choose to use digital and non-digital platforms for reading various types of material.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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