Smartphones Make Some Of Us Lazy Thinkers

We've often thought that smartphones made us dumb, but new studies show it is more complicated than that. They make us lazy more than dumb.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

March 27, 2015

7 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: <a href="" target="_blank">Kobrasoft</a> via Flickr)</p>

Smartphone OS: A 22-Year History

Smartphone OS: A 22-Year History

Smartphone OS: A 22-Year History (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

A lot of people, and even some studies, have come to the conclusion that smartphones make us less smart. But a University of Waterloo study (subscription required) provides some nuance and deeper understanding as to exactly what smartphones do to us. Turns out they can make us lazy. Specifically, smartphones can make the laziest among us even more lazy.

To understand this, consider this basic math problem from the study:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you instinctively said 10 cents, you're wrong, but you're in good company. Two thirds of the study participants who looked at this question reacted with instincts and said 10 cents. If you took a second to think about it, you'd know why you were wrong: 10 cents for the ball plus $1.10 for the bat (one dollar more than the cost of the ball) is $1.20. Only about a third of us stop to think analytically about the answer that we could all get right if we took our time.

[ For harder math check out this math genius that is also an NFL football player. Read This NFL Player is Better at Math Than You Are. ]

That's because, to some extent, we're all "cognitive misers." We don't really like to do the extra work that comes with analytical thinking. We prefer heuristic or intuitive thinking. The problem is that heuristic thinking is more likely to be wrong than a solution reached when we stop and think about stuff for a minute. In other words, by a colloquial measure of "smart," people who tend toward more analytical thinking are smarter than people who tend to more intuitive thinking.

What does this have to do with smartphones? The University of Waterloo researchers followed the smartphone habits of 660 people and discovered a pretty frightening thing. When they excluded using the phone for pure entertainment purposes, such as streaming a movie, they noticed that the more people used their mobile devices, the more likely they were to rely on intuitive thinking. This was particularly true for those who used their smartphones to access search engines. The more analytical thinkers in the study were far less likely than others to use their smartphone's search engine.

Basically, what the University of Waterloo study reveals is that the more heuristic thinkers used their phone to replace their brain. If they couldn't remember a phone number, or the name of an actress, or any other tidbit of information, they'd look it up immediately. They wouldn't try to think it through or reason it out. They were happy to have someone else tell them the answer. Analytical thinkers didn't use the smartphone that way. They took the time to retrieve the information from their brains, or at least think it through before checking.

The authors of the study wouldn't like me saying this, but the easiest way to understand this is that smartphones make dumb people dumber. And smartphones don't make smart people dumber. If you're already a heuristic thinker then you are more prone to use the phone to look stuff up, making you a more heuristic thinker. The more you do that, the less analytical you become, and the more you will fail at basic cognitive problems.

Now, let me stress, the researchers said they can't pin a causal relationship on this. The study simply didn't go that far. It might be that the study is just showing behavior already there in people who favor heuristic thinking. The phone and the person might just be a match made in heuristic heaven.

Why Smartphones Make Us Lazy

To a certain extent, looking things up online doesn't make you less smart or cognitively accurate, or however you want to word it. The Internet is, for the most part, a fairly accurate well of information (if you know where to look), so going there to find the question to a question isn't inherently a problem. Many times, the person who Googles something gets the answer faster and as accurately as the cognitive thinker who sits and puzzles it out. The search really can save time at no loss.

The problem is, according to Gordon Pennycook, a PhD candidate at University of Waterloo and one of the researchers on the study, that we get used to easy answers. In an interview with InformationWeek he said: "The fear is when we come across a problem we can't Google. You get used to having easy answers. Once you get used to it you won't persevere." If you don't persevere, you don't think through the problem cognitively and you come to a bad answer.

He is also worried about long-term effects, especially on aging. One way to limit the cognitive effects of aging is to keep the mind fresh with new challenges and hard thinking. If you take that away, we might not age very well as our brains turn to mush from smartphone use (my words, not his).

There's also a real problem with offloading too much of our memory to our phones. It may make us less creative and less innovative. If you use the smartphone as an extension of memory, "you might use the data you Google and then offload it, which is quite a bit different than actually learning it," Pennycook said, "To be creative you have to put together different types of data stored in memory. This might be harder if you don't have the sources of memory and data to draw on to begin with."

Here's the big question: Are we doomed? Can the effects be reversed? Can we learn to use the phone without using it poorly? Pennycook said, "We don't know yet" if you can mitigate the effects of smartphone use. "But we think you can. That's the goal of education. If you get used to challenging your intuition, then that can also become part of your intuition. When I can Google something, I try to stop myself and think about it first. We're not so hopeless that we can't stop ourselves. Getting in the habit of being more analytical is something we all can do."

The good news is that smartphones probably aren't a pact with the devil by which we agree to receive all the knowledge in the world via the Internet without having the intellect to use it. Smartphones don't make us dumb. They make us lazy. They make us cognitive misers. If we're willing to give up the lazy habits and employ our cognitive skills, we’ll use the smartphone the right way.

Look at it this way. Pennycook compared the brain to a Ferrari: "If you think of someone like a physics professor, someone with high brain power, you can think of them as having a Ferrari. A Ferrari has a lot of horsepower. It is very powerful. But if my grandmother had a Ferrari, it wouldn't be very fast because she wouldn't drive it fast. If someone isn't willing to push the gas pedal down on their brain and use the horsepower, their brain won't be very fast either."

Do you want to use the horsepower or do you want to keep riding in the slow lane?

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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