Your Cell Phone Is Distracting You Even If You’re Trying to Ignore It

Worrying woman sitting at desk in office
Photo: 169/George Marks/Corbis

As I write this, my phone is on my desk, but face-down and off to the side, which seems like enough to keep it from distracting me, especially since it’s on vibrate. But this is probably not doing much good, according to new research from a trio of psychologists at Florida State University. The results of their study, published last month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggest that you can be distracted simply by hearing or feeling your phone buzz — even if you don’t pick it up.

The researchers had 212 undergrad study participants take a standard test to measure their ability to keep their attention focused on a particular task – basically, they sat at computers as numbers and symbols flashed across their screens, and they were to hit a key when a number was shown, unless that number was three. Got that? It doesn’t matter; it’s kind of supposed to be complicated. They did the test twice; during the second round, experimenters sent calls or texts to about half of the participants’ phones.

The study volunteers, by the way, hadn’t been given any specific instructions regarding their phones — they hadn’t been told to put them on silent or vibrate or to turn them off. But the researchers eliminated from their analysis anyone who picked up their phones when they rang, as they were interested only in those who were very earnestly trying to ignore their phones in order to concentrate on the task at hand. But in the end, the students whose phones made some kind of noise were more likely to make errors than the students whose phones had stayed completely silent.

And this, as Robinson Meyer points out over at The Atlantic, does not bode well for the promise of the Apple Watch, which, with a gentle buzz to the wrist, was supposed to free its users from the distraction of actually interacting with their phone. These findings, on the contrary, suggest that simply making space in your mind to acknowledge that something is happening on your phone is enough to divide your attention, thus increasing your likelihood of making errors. “Our results suggest that mobile phones can disrupt attention performance even if one does not interact with the device,” the study authors phrase it. “As mobile phones become integrated into more and more tasks, it may become increasingly difficult for people to set their phones aside and concentrate fully on the task at hand, whatever it may be.”

You Kind of Can’t Ignore Your Cell Phone