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Why We Should Put Our Phones Down

A new study reveals a surprising way that we may enjoy ourselves.

Key points

  • A new study shows that we undervalue the importance of thinking.
  • We may actually benefit from putting our electronics away while waiting.
  • Using electronics while waiting may interfere with the benefits of freely thinking.

Walk into any waiting area and you will see people of all ages on the phone or a tablet. It is rare to see people sitting back and simply engaged in thought while waiting for the next part of the day or night to occur. We have all also observed people on their phones in the midst of meals with others, while driving cars, and in the presence of peers and/or family. In this age of information availability and overload, it seems that everyone is experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out) and/or a strong addiction to electronic devices.

Could there be an additional reason why teens, adults, middle schoolers, and even young children turn to electronics while waiting? A recent study by Hatano et al. (2022) helps shed light on an additional factor. They found that across cultures, individuals consistently underestimate how enjoyable and engaging simply thinking might be. In a series of studies with university students in both Japan and the United Kingdom, participants rated their level of anticipated enjoyment and engagement in simply thinking and then rated their actual level of enjoyment and engagement in thinking after the waiting period. During these waiting periods, participants only had the option to think. They were not allowed to take electronics into the waiting area. Additionally, the waiting areas did not contain visual or auditory stimulation.

It is not necessarily the case that the participants were happy about thinking. Instead, they underestimated the benefits associated with thinking and seemed to expect thinking to be aversive before the waiting period which only allowed thinking and not electronics. After this waiting period, they acknowledged that thinking was more enjoyable and easier to get lost in than anticipated.

So, why have we become averse to waiting around and simply thinking? It seems that we underestimate the positives associated with thinking. Thinking, as we know, can encompass problem-solving, goal-setting, and a variety of other creative tasks. None of these outcomes are as boring as we seem to anticipate. On the contrary, these outcomes can be extremely productive and satisfying.

Perhaps it is time for parents and educators to teach children about the importance of paying attention to one's thoughts. We need to be better role models and put down our own phones when there is an opportunity to simply wait and think. We need to provide these opportunities for both ourselves and our children.

While the Hatano et al. study raises an important issue, there were limitations in their work. In future studies, it will be important to know what the content of the free thinking is while people wait. The Hatano study did not measure this. Second, the Hatano study did not identify precisely why individuals underestimate the benefits of thinking. This should be addressed among a variety of ages, across sexes, and across cultures. In the meantime, we should try to simply think while we are waiting.


Hatano,H.,Ogulmus, C. Shigemasu,H.,aqnd Murayama, K. Thinking about thinking:People underestimate how enjoyable and engaging just waiting is.Journal of Experimental Psychology:General.(1-17).

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