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Why Do We Feel So Compelled to Check Our Phones?

Much like Pavlov's dogs, we are now conditioned to respond to our smartphones.

Source: rawpixel/Pexels

Why do smartphones have such a pull on us? We all feel it nowadays. We clutch our smartphones as if they were a treasure we can’t lose. If you have watched The Lord of the Rings, our smartphones have a curious power over us, much like the One Ring. We can’t be apart from “our Precious.”

Of course, our phones offer many benefits, and there are numerous reasons why we keep checking them. But we do seem to check them compulsively and reflexively. Why? Classical conditioning is one mechanism that explains why we reach for our phones and disconnect from the world around us. Our phones have become so associated with access to reinforcers in the form of news, novelty, entertainment, information, and social connections, that the chimes, buzzes, and rings compel us to respond.

What Is Classical Conditioning?

If you have taken an introductory psychology class, you probably read about Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. He was the first to describe classical conditioning, which is a type of associative learning. In his landmark research, Pavlov was able to train dogs to associate the sound of a metronome (Note: It was NOT a bell) with the subsequent presentation of food. After repeatedly pairing the two, the dogs would salivate at the sound of the metronome. In fact, just the sight of the metronome would lead to salivation!

If you’ve had a cat or dog as a pet, you’ve probably seen this firsthand yourself. When I was growing up, we had cats and fed them canned food. The sound of the electric can opener would bring them scurrying into the kitchen. Annoyingly, this happened practically every time we opened any cans! The cats were often disappointed to find that the Campbell’s soup was not for them.

In this example with my cats, there was actually a variable ratio reinforcement schedule involved as well. This is considered a type of operant conditioning. Variable ratio reinforcement schedules are also involved in the pull of our screens, but I'll cover this mechanism in a separate post.

Classical Conditioning in Daily Life

Classical conditioning doesn't only work on dogs and cats. Human behavior is influenced quite a bit through classical conditioning processes. Once these associations are made, we respond reflexively. So, our behavior is influenced but often we aren’t even aware of it.

The advertising industry uses classical conditioning principles to get us to buy their products. For instance, when they pair beautiful, scantily clad women with a sports car, they are trying to get their target audience, usually men, to associate the car with the sexual arousal elicited by the women. Thus, when the men see (or think about) a particular sports car, their hearts will race. The excitement brought by the women is misattributed to the car. The men are unconsciously drawn to purchasing the car to obtain that excitement. Also, there is the implicit message to the prospective buyer: If you buy this _____, you will get the same benefits (e.g., fun, excitement, power, prestige) that the people in the commercial are getting. As another quick example, the site of the iconic golden arches of McDonald's might cause the mouths of many people to water since it has become so closely associated with burgers and fries.

Classical Conditioning and Smartphones

Classical conditioning and smartphones make a powerful combination. Smartphones are associated with ways to meet our psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. We can connect with other people as well as gain access to endless forms of information, news, knowledge, and entertainment. Because these have been repeatedly paired, the sounds of our smartphones elicit automatic, reflexive responses. Have you ever been around when someone’s smartphone rings with the same chime as yours? Did you reflexively reach for your own smartphone? That’s classical conditioning in action. Through what’s known as second-order conditioning, the sight of a smartphone now elicits an urge to check it.

Because smartphones represent a gateway to meet our psychological needs, we are typically in a state of continuous partial attention. If we think of our brains in terms of a computer, part of our RAM (random access memory) is allocated to the smartphone. We are thinking about them constantly, but usually not consciously. We pay unconscious attention to them even when they are just in our presence.

A Problem Caused by Classical Conditioning Processes

We are on constant alert because of our smartphones. They siphon away our attention from the people in our presence and the tasks at hand. Importantly, this appears to have a negative impact on both our relationships and cognitive functioning. The mere presence of smartphones, even when turned off or silenced, has been found to diminish the quality of in-person interactions. Similarly, the presence of smartphones, even when turned off or silenced, can decrease cognitive performance.

These findings can be explained, at least in part, through classical conditioning processes. Our attention is a limited resource. Because smartphones have been associated with meeting our needs (and desires) through classical conditioning, part of our attention is allocated to them when they are around. Put another way, we have been classically conditioned to unconsciously allocate some of our attention to our smartphones when they are present. Consequently, we have less attention to direct toward the people in our presence or the task at hand. Then, of course, when they actually buzz or ring, we automatically turn our attention to them and away, at least partially, from the people and activities of our current focus.

The Takeaway?

Smartphones exert a powerful influence on us. As Adam Alter wrote in his book by the same name, they are often irresistible. Although we like to think of ourselves as more evolved than most animals, the truth is that learning processes, such as classical conditioning, can affect our behavior in much the same way as Pavlov’s dogs. Since our smartphones are literally and figuratively always on hand, they quietly leach our attention away from the people in our presence and the world around us. Although technologies promise greater connection and productivity, they often end up doing just the opposite. Unfortunately, we seem to be curiously unaware of how our screens are affecting us.

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