Is Your Cell Phone Making You a Jerk?

Cell phones connect you socially, but they may also make you less socially minded.

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Cell phones keep us socially connected, but new research suggests they actually reduce users’ social consciousness. In fact, the study showed that cell phone use was linked to more selfish behavior.

Researchers from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business found that after a short period of cell phone use, people were less likely to partake in “prosocial” behavior — actions that are intended to help another person or society — compared with a control group. For example, after using a cell phone, study participants were more likely to turn down volunteer opportunities and were less persistent in completing word problems, even though they knew their answers would provide money for charity.

The same drop in prosocial tendencies occurred even when participants were simply asked draw a picture of their cell phones and think about using them.

The study involved college men and women in their 20s, but the researchers think the findings would apply to any group.

So why would an innocuous thing like making a cell phone call make a person less giving? The researchers think it has to do with feelings of social connectedness. All humans have a fundamental need to connect with others — but once that need is met, say by using a cell phone, it naturally reduces our inclination to feel empathy or engage in helping behavior toward others. “The cell phone directly evokes feelings of connectivity to others, thereby fulfilling the basic human need to belong,” said study author and marketing professor Rosellina Ferraro in a statement.

Previous research shores up the theory. In October, researchers at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University looked at the effect of social support on people’s attitudes toward others outside of their social circle. The researchers found that those who had a strong sense of belonging to a social circle were more likely to “dehumanize” other groups and more likely to treat them unkindly.

Healthland’s Maia Szalavitz reported at the time:

“[S]ocial connection is sort of like eating. When you are hungry, you seek out food. When you are lonely, you seek social connection. When the experience of social connection is elevated, we feel socially ‘full’ and have less desire to seek out other people and see them in a way that treats them as essentially human,” [says lead author Adam Waytz].

A similar psychology may affect our everyday interactions. “People talk about being overextended, having too many dinner dates, coffee dates, meetings. They feel depleted,” says Waytz. “We think this plays into our findings. Even though you are extremely socially connected, at some point, it comes at the expense of the ability to consider the full humanity of those around you.”

Waytz and his colleagues also noted that when people feel they are included in a social circle, it encourages a sense of exclusivity — a feeling of “us versus them.” That increases our tendency to view those on the outside of the circle as somehow less human and less worthy of receiving our charitable attention.

The authors of the current study further tested people’s feelings of social connectedness stemming from use of other social media like Facebook, and found that they tended to feel more connected after using their cell phones than after using Facebook. “Given the increasing pervasiveness of cellphones, it does have the potential to have broad social implications,” Ferraro said.