Eating dinner without checking your email: impulse control, time preference, and mobile device usage

How well would you do in the phone stacking game? In case you have not heard of it, it’s played during a dinner out and it goes as follows: at the beginning of the meal everyone puts their phone on a pile in the middle of the table. Like this:

And then you start ordering drinks and you have an enjoyable meal and a conversation with your friends or family. There is only one catch: You cannot touch your device to answer the phone, check your email, or send an SMS to your stock broker. The first person to give in to temptation by checking their device pays the entire bill. If no one touches their phone till the end of the meal, everybody pays for themselves.

How would you do at this game?

If you think you might have to sit on your hands all night and eat only soup using a straw to avoid a massive bill, then you might not be alone. Digital devices have introduced their own demand characteristics and their constant presence in our daily lives has had some profound psychological and cognitive consequences.

recent article in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review addressed some of those consequences and sought to identify the variables that explain people’s use of mobile devices. Researchers Wilmer and Chein note that our basic cognitive and affective functioning may be altered by the constant cues, notifications, pings, beeps, chirps, and vibrations with which devices are assaulting at least three of our senses. (I am not aware of any olfactory apps as yet.)

Not only do those cues impose a load on our cognitive control mechanism—we need to decide whether or not to ignore a chirp—but they also alter the reward structure of our world. Many intrusions, after all, offer a gratifying escape from tedious tasks such as grading of exams or assignments. When the choice is between a funny video on Facebook and marking a first-year assignment that opens with “memory is a complex and complicated phenomenon whose complexity has puzzled researchers for a long time extending over many years”, then a Facebook video may be almost irresistible (even if it is the worst cat video ever made). The constant availability of instant gratification has led some commentators to argue that the current generation, having grown up with digital technology, has become so accustomed to instant gratification that is has diminished their ability to plan for the future.

However, to date such claims have relied primarily on anecdotes and are tenuous at best.

Wilmer and Chein set out to redress this deficit of data by conducting a study that related smartphone usage to a number of relevant candidate variables, such as delay of gratification, impulse control, and reward sensitivity.

In addition to measuring participants’ addiction to their devices by answering questions such as “How often do you find yourself checking your phone during conversations or when hanging around with friends?”, Wilmer and Chein administered several other tasks.

Participants’ willingness to delay gratification was measured by a standard intertemporal choice task in which a hypothetical choice has to be made between a smaller amount now or $1,000 at a delay, with delays ranging from 1 day to 1 year. Focus was on identification of the point of indifference; that is, how much extra participants would have to receive in the future in order to be indifferent about their choices. For example, most people would prefer $999 now to $1,000 a year from now, and they might prefer $1,000 a year from now to $100 today, but somewhere in between those extremes they might be indifferent about their choice (e.g., $800 now vs. $1,000 in a year). The lower that indifference amount, the greater one’s impatience.

A “go-nogo” task measured people’s ability to control their impulse by presenting them with a long sequence of stimuli in which one stimulus (e.g., an “x”) required a response (key press) whereas another stimulus (e.g., a “k”) required the response to be withheld. Because there are far more “x” than “k” stimuli in the sequence, it quickly becomes difficult for people to withhold a response, and the extent to which they can do so successfully is an index of impulse control.

A final measure involved another questionnaire that targeted people’s responsiveness to rewards. In this survey, participants were asked whether or not they agreed with a series of statements such as, “When I see an opportunity for something I like I get excited right away” or “I’m always willing to try something new if I think it will be fun.”

The results were quite straightforward: Reliance on a device was predicted by intertemporal preference and impulse control but not reward sensitivity. Specifically, the more people reported relying on their mobile phones, the smaller their indifference point was between a present monetary value and an amount in the distant past. That is, if you are indifferent between $200 now and $1000 a year from now—which implies you’d rather have $201 now than $1000 in a year—then you are more likely to check your email during dinner than if you are equally happy with $900 now or $1000 in a year. (I guess you need the $201 to pay for everyone’s dinner.)

Similarly, the less able you are to withhold a response in a go-nogo task, the more likely you are to send a text while having a conversation.

While those associations are quite informative, they do leave open the question of causality: one cannot jump to the conclusion that growing up with digital technology leads one to become more and more impatient and unable to control one’s impulses. It could be the other way round: impatient people simply find a new outlet for their impatience in their mobile devices, whereas in the 19th century they might have had to whip their horses into a gallop instead.

We shouldn’t forget that electronic devices are extremely useful and can serve as an external memory, as we have discussed on this blog.

Of course, mobile devices are only part of the story. Another source of intrusion is your work computer, and the distraction (gratification?) it offers through email and web browsers. And because computers are harder to pile up in the middle of the dining table, there is another game you can play to prevent intrusions: it’s called Freedom.
Article focused on in this post:

Wilmer, H.H. & Chein, J.M. (2016). Mobile technology habits—patterns of association among device usage, intertemporal preference, impulse control, and reward sensitivity, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, DOI: 10.3758/s13423-016-1011-z

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