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The Phone Proximity Effect: Your Phone Could Be Sabotaging Your Studies

Wondering what you can do to make your study time more effective? One answer, science suggests, is to put some real distance between you and your phone. Even if you’re confident that your phone isn’t distracting you, you could be falling victim to the ‘phone proximity effect.’

What is the phone proximity effect? Put simply, it’s the idea that when your phone is physically close to you - when it’s within easy reach - your cognitive performance can be negatively impacted, even if you’re not actually using it. Surprising? Perhaps, but it’s borne out by some very interesting recent science:

Take, for example, this 2017 study of nearly 800 smartphone users conducted by some scholars at the University of Texas. The researchers were interested in seeing what effect smartphone presence has on cognitive performance, so they sorted subjects into three groups:

  • The “desk” group brought their phones into the testing area and placed them face-down on the desk.
  • The “pocket/bag” group brought their phones into the testing area but kept them in a pocket or bag.
  • The “other room” group left their phones in another room before entering the testing area.

All three groups were instructed to place their phones on silent and turn vibrate off, so that no calls, texts, or notifications could distract them during the test.

Once in the testing room, subjects completed a couple of tests designed to measure cognitive performance. Then they answered a questionnaire that asked them how frequently they had thought about their phones during the testing, and whether they thought their phone’s location could have impacted their performance.

The Smartphone Proximity “Brain Drain”

phone-proximity-effect-results-graph

Above: test results of "desk", "pocket", and "other room" groups for each of the cognitive tests.

The results were pretty dramatic. The “desk” group performed worst on both cognitive tests, and the “pocket/bag” group came second. In both tests, the “other room” group performed best. The results of the cognitive testing strongly suggested that the physically closer our phone is, the worse we perform, even if it’s silenced.

Thinking that perhaps students had been secretly checking notifications, the researchers conducted a similar experiment, and asked some students to shut their phones off entirely. But it turned out that didn’t matter - cognitive performance was worst for “desk” students and best for “other room” students even when their phones were turned off.

Perhaps even more significant were the results of the questionnaire: the vast majority of subjects felt that their phone hadn’t impacted their performance, and reported that they hadn’t thought about their phone during the testing period.

The implications of this study are pretty significant: having our phones nearby makes us perform worse, but we don’t realize it’s having an effect.

One of the study’s authors, Adrian Ward, explained that the problem is that even not thinking about something takes effort: “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process — the process of requiring yourself to not think about something — uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”

In other words, when your phone’s easily within reach, some part of your brain has to work to keep you from being distracted by it. That effect is apparently lessened when it’s in a different room and not easily accessible.

That’s just a single study, of course, but an earlier study suggests the exact same thing. In that study, University of Maine researchers asked subjects to complete tasks designed to measure cognitive function and attention, with each task further split by difficulty level. Researchers then pretended to accidentally leave either a cell phone or a notebook on the subject’s desk as they took the test.

As you’d expect, the students with phones on their desks performed measurably worse than the students with notebooks. And in a follow-up experiment, the researchers confirmed that this effect held regardless of whose phone it was: students who were asked to place their own phone on the desk as they took the tests performed worse than those who were not. It was the Phone Proximity Effect in action.

And the negative impact of smartphones on learning and cognitive performance has been demonstrated in a number of other recent studies, too.

For example, a 2018 study published in Computers and Human Behavior found that students distracted by their phones remembered less from a short lecture (and performed worse on a subsequent test). A similar study found that students who used their phones during a lecture took worse notes and performed worse on follow-up assessments. Another study found that schools which banned mobile phones saw higher test scores post-ban. A Japanese study even found that the physical location of your phone might affect the part of the computer screen you’re most focused on as you work.

What Can You Do?

To begin with, it’s always worth remembering that experimental results can be biased or flat-out wrong, and you should do what’s best for you. In this case, there are quite a few studies that suggest similar conclusions, but how you respond to the presence of your phone while studying won’t necessarily follow the pattern of results these researchers found in their studies.

With that said, if you’d like to give yourself a shot at increasing your performance, these results suggest some pretty obvious prescriptions for your data science study sessions (or any kind of study you’re engaged in):

First: Put your phone in a different room. As Texas study demonstrated, having your phone nearby will hurt your cognitive performance even if it’s silenced or turned off, and even if you’re confident it’s not impacting you. When you’re setting aside time to study, it’s best you leave the phone in another room.

Second: Turn off the ringer (if you can). While the Texas study showed that the negative cognitive impact of phone proximity persists even when it’s silenced, other studies have shown that performance is also impacted by direct interaction with your phone - and that could still happen if you hear it buzz or ring while it’s in another room.

Obviously not everyone will be able to do this; if you have family you need to be available for in case of emergency, an increase in cognitive performance during your study sessions is probably not worth being out of touch. But if you can shut the phone off and put it in a different room, you’ll be giving your brain its best shot at forgetting about the notifications you might be missing and focusing squarely on the task at hand.

It’s also worth remembering that this research applies only to being distracted by your phone when you’re trying to do something else (like work through the latest Dataquest mission in your data science studies). If you’re doing something with your phone, like reading one of these free data science ebooks, you may not get any performance improvement from switching to reading on your computer and putting the phone away.