Thursday, June 10, 2021

An effect of the mere presence of a phone on relationship quality & creativity is at minimum harder to find than what was previously assumed in the literature: This research contributes to qualify the view that smartphones are harmful

Linares C, Sellier A-L (2021) How bad is the mere presence of a phone? A replication of Przybylski and Weinstein (2013) and an extension to creativity. PLoS ONE 16(6): e0251451. Jun 9 2021.

Abstract: A 2013 article reported two experiments suggesting that the mere presence of a cellphone (vs. a notebook) can impair the relationship quality between strangers. The purpose of the present research is twofold: (1) closely replicate this article’s findings, and (2) examine whether there may be an impact of the mere presence of a phone on creativity, whether at a group- or an individual- level. In two experiments (N = 356 participants, 136 groups), we followed the original procedure in the 2013 article. In particular, groups of participants who had never seen each other before the study had a conversation in the mere presence of either a smartphone or a notebook. The participants then carried out creative tasks, in groups (Studies 1 and 2) or alone (Study 1). In both studies, we failed to replicate the original results on relationship quality. We also failed to find any effect of the mere presence of a phone on creativity. We discuss possible reasons which may have caused differences between our results and the original ones. Our main conclusion is an effect of the mere presence of a phone on relationship quality and creativity is at minimum harder to find than what was previously assumed in the literature. More generally, this research contributes to qualify the view that smartphones are harmful.

General discussion

In two studies, we failed to replicate Przybylski and Weinstein’s [12] results showing an adverse effect of the mere presence of a mobile phone on relationship formation, when considering both dyads and triads of strangers. We also did not find any effect of the mere presence of a mobile phone on any aspect of creative cognition, examining both divergent and convergent creativity processes and outputs, and both group and individual creativity. These results suggest that mere presence of a mobile phone may not be as harmful as has been previously claimed [1213].

Non-replication of Przybylski and Weinstein (2013)

The failed replication result directly adds to the line of research on the negative consequences of the mere presence of a mobile device [12134951], by suggesting that this negative influence may not be as marked as was previously assumed. If we cannot exclude that there might be other instances where this presence is harmful, our findings at least point out the fragility of the phenomenon. At a broader level, our results also nuance the dominant view that smartphones and technology are harmful, adding to burgeoning research that is casting doubt on the pervasiveness of their negative effects [e.g., 4877]. Our findings also complement research on mere exposure effects [7880]. Finally, our research supports the importance of replications [e.g., 298182]: Until an effect has been independently replicated, researchers need to remain cautious in assuming its existence [2831].

Despite our best efforts to conduct the closest replication as possible, our studies contain limitations. First, null effects do not invalidate an effect. It may be that the mere presence of the phone is harmful in different populations from those we sampled (e.g., in populations where the use of the smartphone may not be as pervasive as in large European cities). Second, even though our sample sizes were much greater than those in Przybylski and Weinstein [12], they may not have provided enough power to detect an effect [77]. Third, we measured relationship quality after the creative tasks and self-reports on the creative process, which might have wiped out the effect due to fatigue or contamination.

Is there a way to reconcile our results with those of Przybylski and Weinstein [12]? We see several possibilities, all of which relate to the timing of our experiments. We collected our data in 2018, compared to Przybylski and Weinstein (in or before 2012) [12]. The first possibility is that people might have simply gotten used to the presence of mobile devices, which could make them immune to their mere presence. Relatedly, our sample included mainly participants in their twenties, that belong to a generation who grew up with smartphones, and thus who might find their presence very natural. Another reason could be that the technology has evolved greatly between 2012 and 2018. Przybylski and Weinstein [12] used a cellphone, while we used a smartphone. Indeed, the number of smartphone users worldwide has more than doubled during this interval [83]. Additionally, people have developed strong bonds to them, although this is less likely to explain our results since in our studies, participants were exposed to a lab device [778485]. If any of these conjectures were true, then our findings would provide an updated assessment of the social consequences of the mere presence of a mobile phone, suggesting that its effect was short-lived.

Null effect on creativity

The absence of evidence supporting a link between the mere presence of a smartphone and creativity advances the exploration of the effects of technology on idea generation. Our results suggest that the mere presence of a technological device like a smartphone may not affect general measures of creativity, whether positively or negatively. Previous research has pointed out the critical role of the environment for creativity which can be affected by incidental cues like sound or background color or the presence of physical objects [668690]. Relatedly, a lay belief exists that a creative environment should be free from any distractions [9192]. Our findings suggest that creativity may not be that sensitive to the mere presence of technology.

One limitation of this investigation is that participants did the creativity tasks only after the conversation. However, in the real-world, creativity endeavors are rarely isolated from other processes, and we would argue that this improbably caused our null effects.

Implications and avenues for future research

The main implication of this research is to moderate calls to completely isolate from smartphones’ presence. It may not be necessary to ban even switched off smartphones from the dinner table or to enforce strict cellphone policies in organizations [9396]. For instance, the American, French and British governments have a no-phone policy during meetings, whereby each member has to leave their phones at the entry of the meeting room [97]. Our findings suggest that these constraints could be partly released, at least for meetings in which there is no concern that sensible information may be recorded.

Of course, when people’s own smartphones are present, the temptation to use them might still be detrimental for social interactions or creativity [199899]. In Misra et al. [13] for instance, acquaintances in the mere presence of their own mobile devices experienced a lower relationship quality, although similarly to Przybylski and Weinstein [12], this finding remains to be replicated. In a study we do not report here, we investigated whether individual idea generation could be affected by the presence of one’s own smartphone. Again, we observed no effect on creative cognition. At this point, it is our view that there is not much influence of the mere presence of a phone on creative cognition. What may be worthwhile investigating are ways in which smartphones may impact creativity, other than via their mere presence. For instance, future research could explore the difference between generating ideas on one’s smartphone rather than on one’s personal computer [8485]. This could also be interesting when exchanging ideas with other people, in the wake of research on electronic brainstorming [100102]. More broadly, the topic of creativity and technology still offers a wide field of investigation.


We did not replicate Przybylski and Weinstein’s [12] finding that the mere presence of a mobile device impairs relationship quality, nor did we find any effect of this presence on creativity. There is one practical recommendation arising from our results: next time you meet a stranger or work on a creative task, you may leave your phone on the table. Just turn on the airplane mode.

No comments:

Post a Comment