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There's a New Way to Make Someone Feel Inferior

New research shows the dangers of "phubbing" in relationships.

Source: gpointstudio/Shutterstock

You use your smartphone as a communications tool in a multitude of ways. Obviously, the phone as a way to make calls is the most basic. However, its ready availability also makes it possible for you to use your smartphone as a communications weapon. There may seem to be endless ways to make people feel inferior, but in “phubbing,” your smartphone becomes that weapon. Think about the times a person you’re talking to suddenly interrupts the conversation to take a call or react to a “bing” announcing the presence of a text. There you are, mid-sentence, cut off by what is obviously a more important message this person wants to receive. If so, then you’ve been “phubbed,” snubbed by a person on a cellphone. It doesn’t feel very good, does it?

University of Kent’s Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen Douglas (2018) define phubbing as occurring when people “ignore others with whom they are physically interacting to use their smartphone instead." In their framework, a “phubber” is a person who starts the phubbing, and a “phubbee” is the recipient of the behavior. The British team used this phenomenon as a way to study how this peculiarly modern form of social interaction would impact the social interaction between phubber and phubbee.

Before smartphones became ubiquitous, if you wanted to snub a person you were with, you would not have such an easily available option. In the middle of a conversation, would you pull out a novel or a magazine and just start reading? Would you, while out to dinner with your partner or a friend, pull out a pad of paper and just start writing a letter to someone else? Would you pull out a deck of cards and start playing solitaire? Even if you were bored to tears, it’s unlikely you’d engage in such overtly rude behavior. Furthermore, before smartphones, if you were at a social engagement, other people wouldn’t be able to reach you. You also wouldn’t have little distractions at your fingertips in the form of email, texts, online games, shopping apps, and streaming videos.

Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas believe that the primary cause of phubbing is smartphone addiction, which in turn results from an excessive fear of missing out (FOMO), general Internet addiction, and lack of self-control. They note that, as you might expect, phubbing can erode relationship quality, leading its targets to feel less trustful of their interaction partners, jealous, and unhappy. The purpose of the University of Kent study was to investigate why phubbing has such deleterious effects on the person being phubbed. They propose that “phubbing is a specific form of social exclusion that threatens fundamental needs and leads to deflated affect." It’s this social exclusion, similar to ostracism, that should predict who feels like social outcasts and, hence, inferior.

Additionally, phubbing influences the target’s need to feel in control during social interactions. When you’re communicating directly with your interaction partner, you have a say in how the conversation goes. When that partner phubs you, you’ve lost that control. Sense of control, then, becomes another factor in the prediction of whether the phubbed is made to feel inferior.

It is also possible, however, that as phubbing becomes somewhat normative, its impact on you as the target becomes reduced, because you don’t view it as social rejection. It’s also possible that you have a particularly high threshold to feeling snubbed, also known as rejection sensitivity. You just may not particularly care if your partner suddenly takes a call or becomes lost in the process of smartphone surfing.

All of these factors were put to the test to predict the impact of phubbing on communication quality and relationship satisfaction; Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas asked a sample of undergraduate students (an appropriate population given the subject matter) to enter a 3-D animation simulation in which they were put in the place of an animated figure whose communication partner (another animated figure) engaged in varying degrees of phubbing. During the phubbing portion of the manipulation, the animated figure “looks down to the smartphone, completely averts eye gaze from the participant, swipes the screen on the device, and keeps smiling and laughing about something he or she has just read." In one condition, there was no phubbing (the phone sat on the table), and in the other two, some or most of the interaction involved the partner's using the phone.

Prior to the phubbing manipulation, participants completed a measure of rejection sensitivity with questions such as, “How concerned or anxious would you be over whether or not your family would want to help you?” After they were exposed to the phubbing or no phubbing manipulation, they completed additional questionnaires meant to tap into feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

Adding to the prediction equation were rejection sensitivity and perceived social norms of phubbing, which in turn were viewed as influencing the participants' sense of belonging, self-esteem, feeling of meaningful existence, sense of control, and both negative and positive affect.

As the UK authors predicted, people in the no-phubbing condition were the most satisfied, both with the interaction and with the quality of communication; those in the maximum-phubbing condition were least satisfied, and those who experienced partial phubbing were in between the two. Moreover, the negative effects of being phubbed resulted from the feelings of unhappiness it created.

Looking at how participants in the phubbing condition reacted in terms of their levels of needs, the authors found a similar pattern to that which occurs when people are ostracized or excluded. Perhaps surprisingly, the actual sensitivity to rejection and beliefs in whether phubbing is considered a socially acceptable behavior didn’t contribute significantly to the prediction of phubbing’s effect on ratings of the interaction.

What makes the findings so impressive was that the entire interaction was completely simulated. The participants weren’t being excluded by real people, but by animated figures who didn’t even have a particularly distinct identity.

The authors conclude with a stinging critique of phubbing as an acceptable social behavior: “Phubbing violates fundamental human needs and reduces affect,” which, in turn, leads to negative communication outcomes. Just like snubbing, phubbing hurts people’s feelings and makes them feel bad about themselves.

There may be times that unintentional phubbing is unavoidable, and you have to take a call or answer a text when you're involved in face-to-face interaction. Knowing how hurtful the behavior can be suggests that you consider acknowledging this fact and keeping whatever conversations you’re having as short and perfunctory as possible. The quality of our social relationships reflects many factors, and allowing people to feel good about themselves is a way to ensure that yours will be that much more fulfilling.


Chotpitayasunondh, V., & Douglas, K. M. (2018). The effects of 'phubbing' on social interaction. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, doi:10.1111/jasp.12506