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Why Do We Let Our Phones Interfere When We Socialize?

Research examines why we engage in a behavior we know is socially undesirable.

Key points

  • Most people perceive phone-snubbing as harmful but continue to do it.
  • We tend to think our own phone use during an interaction affects others less than their phone use affects us.
  • People attribute more positive motives to their own phone use than to others' use.
Budgeron Bach courtesy Pexels
Source: Budgeron Bach courtesy Pexels

People often complain when others are distracted by cell phones — spouses not fully listening to each other because they keep glancing at their phones, a couple on a dinner date at a restaurant with their phones on the table, friends hanging out together all immersed in their phones. Yet despite how much we complain about the distraction of cell phones, we continue to allow ourselves to succumb to it. New research explores why we "phub" (short for "phone snub") others, despite disapproving of the practice.

The downside of phubbing

Research on phubbing suggests that the negative attitude many people have toward this behavior is justified. People tend to feel excluded and their mood suffers when they're being ignored in favor of someone's phone. And frequently being phubbed by a romantic partner creates conflict and leads to lower relationship satisfaction. Phones are also distracting, making it difficult for people to fully attend to whatever else is going in their environment.

If everyone thinks phubbing is so awful, why do we still do it?

In a series of studies just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Elyssa Barrick and colleagues investigated this seeming contradiction.

In one study, the researchers asked participants to recall one of three different social interactions involving cell phone use:

  • In the self phone use-self effects condition, they were asked to think about a time they were with another person and spent some time using their phone, and rated how it affected their own experience.
  • In the self phone use-other effects condition, they instead rated how much their own phone use affected the other person.
  • Finally, in the other phone use-self effects condition, they thought of a time when another person used their phone with them and how much that affected their own experience.

In all three conditions, participants rated feelings of social connection, enjoyment, and engagement during the interaction. Results showed that people felt that the other person's phone use affected them more negatively than their own use had affected themselves or the other person.

In another similar study, the researchers again asked people to recall a situation in which they or the other person used their phone during the interaction, but this time they also asked about people's reasons for using their phones during the interaction. The asked people about multiple reasons why someone might use their phone during an interaction and grouped them into general categories:

  • Positive personal reasons: Finding the phone use more enjoyable or interesting than the interaction with the other person, or using the phone for something important or time sensitive.
  • Positive social reasons: Showing the other person something on the phone, or using the phone in a way that related to the conversation.
  • Negative personal reasons: Avoiding boredom, discomfort, or other negative feelings.
  • Negative social reasons: Dislike of the other person, or being upset with the other person.

The results showed that people didn't necessarily think others had more negative reasons for using their phones than they did themselves. But they perceived themselves as having more positive motives than other people. This also explained why people felt that interactions where they used their phone were more connected, enjoyable and engaging for both themselves and the other person than the interactions where the other person used their phone. Because they believed their own phone use was motivated by positive factors, they thought the overall interaction was better when they were the ones using their phones, compared to interactions when the other person did the same thing.

This is just one example of the general tendency we have to interpret our own behavior in the best possible light, but not extend that courtesy to other people. We tend to see our own bad behavior as justified and not that harmful, but can easily see the downside of other people's bad behavior.

How to avoid the bias

The good news is that recognizing that we have this bias may help us avoid it. Research suggests that making yourself more aware of this bias and considering how it may be operating when you're using your phone can help you to see how your phone use may be negatively affecting others. And since you're likely to view your own phone use more positively than the other person does, this is a reminder to think about how you may be perceived by the other person before you pull out your phone.

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