The Invisible Influence of Cell Phones

Cell phones are so convenient that they’re inconvenient. — Haruki Murakami

If you were being mugged and had to give up either your wallet or your cell phone, which would you choose?

In formulating your own answer, you probably tried to determine which of those two items was more replaceable (or rather, why the mugger was only asking for one of them…). For many people, their phone has become more indispensable than the cards in their wallet.

But is that indispensability a good thing?

According to the news, cell phones are awful, cell phones are amazing, and cell phones are full of cat videos (both awful and amazing). But rather than debate the morals of cell phone usage, let’s talk about some of the ways cell phones unexpectedly influence your psychology.


If you’ve ever tried to do work while a nearby stranger talked on the phone, there was probably a good chance you wanted to punch them in the face. Or at least that was a feeling one researcher had when he investigated what makes “overheard cell phone calls” so distracting.

For this study, researchers had participants complete a visual attention task while they either heard a full conversation (i.e., two people talking to one another) or half a conversation (i.e., what you hear when overhearing a phone call).

The researchers found that the participants performed significantly worse on the task when they were listening to a “halfalogue” (i.e., the imitation of a phone call) compared to the full dialogue. That is, when people talk on the phone, the conversation we hear is unpredictable. With our brains unable to go on “pilot mode” as it does with a regular conversation, our brain instead is constantly returning focus to the halfalogue to figure out what’s going on.


We all know that cell phones are powerful (i.e., a present-day iPhone can perform calculations at 120 million times the speed of the computers that first sent humans to the moon). But did you know cell phones can powerfully influence our psychology even when we’re not using them?

In one study, researchers showed that when participants simply have a phone out on the desk in front of them (on silent mind you), it is enough to impair their performance on various attention tasks. For example, in one study, participants with a silent phone on the desk (vs. a notebook) performed significantly worse on a mathematical adding and recognition task.

The researchers suggest that simply having the phone in plain view makes salient all of our social connections, obligations, and responsibilities, which subsequently distract us from our current work—an effect found only for more “difficult” tasks rather than easy ones.


This is a picture from the study of the actual cell phone they used.

If I asked you to tell me which letters are listed on the 5 key of your dial pad, would you be able to? Although consciously those letters may elude you, your subconscious has been paying attention.

For example, participants dialed numbers that either spelled out positive words (e.g., “friend”) or negative words (e.g., “crisis”). Importantly, while dialing these numbers, none of the buttons had the letters actually printed on them. Nonetheless, the researchers later found that those who had typed positive words rated those phone numbers more positively!

Moreover, the researcher found that participants preferred companies which had a phone number that spelled out a “matched” word (e.g., the numbers spelled out “love” when calling a dating agency) compared to a mismatched word (e.g., “salad” for a dating agency), even when the actual letters weren’t printed on these keypads either!


So, the next time a mugger asks for your cell phone, you can now entertain him with all these interesting facts first, and maybe he’ll be so impressed he won’t even rob you!


Psychophilosophy to Ponder: Just like the second study I talked about today, keeping your phone out on the table during an interpersonal interaction resulted in worse evaluations of one’s conversational partner. Why could this be? That is, if you were on a date, and even though the person never answered their phone, why do you think having it on the table would result in a more negative evaluation of the outing?



Emberson, L. L., Lupyan, G., Goldstein, M. H., & Spivey, M. J. (2010). Overheard cell-phone conversations when less speech is more distracting. Psychological science, 21(10), 1383-1388.

Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(3), 237-246.

Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting. Social Psychology.

Topolinski, S. (2011). I 5683 You Dialing Phone Numbers on Cell Phones Activates Key-Concordant Concepts. Psychological Science.

Author: jdt

Jake writes weekly posts every Wednesday on the intersection of psychology and philosophy. To learn more about him, or to propose a topic you'd like him to cover, go to

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