Smartphone Attachment Can Mimic a Human Relationship

A new study looks at smartphones and anthropomorphism.

Posted Dec 13, 2017

  • To what extent do cows have intentions?
  • To what extent does a car have free will?
  • To what extent does the ocean have consciousness?

On a 10-point scale, with 10 indicating absolute agreement and 1 indicating absolute disagreement, how much would you say you agree with the above statements? The extent to which you do indicates the degree to which you might display anthropomorphic beliefs, which is the extent to which you think that animals and nonhuman objects possess human characteristics. Examples of the types of objects to which people with anthropomorphic beliefs ascribe human characteristics are animals, cars, machinery, and even everyday household objects. A person’s anthropomorphic beliefs can be measured using a questionnaire featuring items similar to those offered above (Waytz, Cacioppo & Epley 2010).

JKstock/Shutterstock
Source: JKstock/Shutterstock

Because anthropomorphic beliefs indicate the extent to which people believe that inanimate objects possess human-like characteristics, it may be the case that these beliefs are also related to smartphone attachment. This potential link has now been investigated by Jessica Bodford and colleagues (Bodford, Kwan and Sobota, 2017).

Attachment and Smartphone Attachment

Harry Harlow’s rather notorious experiment with infant rhesus monkeys (Harlow, 1958) illustrated that when they were separated from their adult attachment figures, they formed attachments to substitute objects. Similar behavior can be observed in humans who, in the absence of primary caregivers or romantic partners, might form attachments to substitute objects in various ways.

Hazan and Shavers (1987) suggested that humans may possess one of three basic attachment styles, described below. When testing for attachment style, respondents were asked to indicate which paragraph best describes their particular experience when involved in a close relationship:

  • "I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me," describes secure attachment.
  • "I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away," describes anxious attachment.
  • "I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others, I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being," characterizes avoidant attachment.

Bartholomew (1990) adapted these paragraphs into a Relationship Scales Questionnaire, which Bodford and colleagues subsequently reworded such that the questionnaire referred to smartphones rather than human attachment figures, and thus measured smartphone attachment. For example, the statement "I am comfortable depending on other people" was changed to "I am comfortable depending on my phone."

When using the Bodford et al. scale, participants were instructed to think only of their smartphones and not the people who might be contacted using them. 

Bodford and her colleagues also measured "smartphone reliance," the extent to which participants felt they required a smartphone. More specifically, smartphone reliance is a person’s need to communicate with friends, stay informed of social events, and generally connect with others. Finally, they measured "urge to answer" with a scenario in which participants imagined hearing a text or email alert while driving alone. Participants were asked to state the likelihood that they would check their phone in this situation.

Is Human Attachment Related to Smartphone Attachment?

To investigate this, the researchers looked at the relationship between the three types of human attachment — secure, anxious, and avoidant — and the corresponding three types of smartphone attachment. They found that the relationship between anxious human and anxious smartphone attachment was significantly higher than the relationship between the secure and avoidant human attachment styles and the secure and avoidant smartphone attachment styles. In other words, there is a strong link between anxious human attachment and anxious smartphone attachment.

Bodford and colleagues also found that there was a relationship between anxious human attachment and anthropomorphic beliefs. Further, they found a connection between anxious smartphone attachment and anthropomorphic beliefs. In other words, those who displayed an anxious smartphone attachment style were also more likely to display anthropomorphic beliefs.

Smartphone Reliance and the "Urge to Answer"

Finally, the researchers found that anxious smartphone attachment was related to smartphone reliance and an urge to answer emails or texts in potentially risky situations, such as driving. This finding goes some way toward indicating those individuals who may be at risk of using their phones in potentially dangerous situations.

Overall, the findings indicate that anxious human attachment is related to anxious smartphone attachment, and further, that anxious smartphone attachment is related to a stronger reliance on one’s smartphone and an urge to use a smartphone in inappropriate settings, such as driving. Finally, the belief that inanimate objects possess human characteristics would also appear to be connected to an anxious smartphone attachment style. So...is your smartphone your best friend?

References

Bartholomew K. (1990) ‘Avoidance of Intimacy: an Attachment Perspective’, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7, 147–178.

Bodford, J. E., Kwan V. S. Y. & Sobota, D. S. (2017) ‘Fatal Attractions: Attachment to Smartphones Predicts Anthropomorphic Beliefs and Dangerous Behaviours’, Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 20, (5), 320-326.

Harlow H. (1958) ‘The Nature of love’, American Psychologist, 13, 673–685.

Hazan, C. & Shaver P. R. (1987) 'Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511–24.

Waytz A., Cacioppo J., & Epley N. (2010) ‘Who Sees Human? The Stability and Importance of Individual Differences in Anthropomorphism. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 219–232.