Why smartphones are making your workforce dummer according to behavioural economics

In the age of digital connection, the self-driving mind has taught us to allow ourselves to become easily distracted by smartphones. Behavioural Economics explains the hugely negative impact this has on intelligence as well as the simple tricks that can alleviate its effect.

Smartphone distraction in a meeting

When was the last time you sat in a meeting without your phone? Having your phone with you in a meeting has slowly become a given. It’s a crucial tool for checking emails, booking follow-up meetings and so on. But, if we’re totally honest, how many of us can say it’s not a distraction from time-to-time?

We all do it. As Jeff from Accounting launches into the third presentation on regulations, you take a quick look at your emails to see if anything new has come in. Surely there’s no harm in that? Maybe not, but then you have a look at twitter, follow a couple of links and before you know it, you’re watching cat videos with your boss jeering over your shoulder.

Okay, maybe it rarely goes that far but you get the idea; it’s very easy to get distracted by your phone and lose track of meetings!

And it’s a problem.


In fact, new research in Behavioural Economics has shown that this might be worse than we first thought. It turns out that using your phone in meetings actually makes you less intelligent.

Behavioural economists in America recently did a study on the effects of phones on intelligence in which they asked participants to do a series of intelligence tests. Throughout, they all either had their phone on the table in front of them, in their bag or outside the room.

Astonishingly, those that had their phones on the table scored significantly lower levels of working memory capacity and fluid intelligence. In fact, even those with their phones in their bags next to them scored lower than those who left their phones outside.

graph showing intelligence reduction with smartphone use

Just having your phone near you – not even out on the table – makes you dummer!

It’s quite logical though, really. We’ve got so used to checking our phones automatically that knowing that your phone is beside you invites you to check it. Even resisting the distraction of checking your phone takes your mind off the task at hand and reduces your intelligence.


Behavioural Economist Sendhil Mullainathan explains that the cause of this dramatic loss of intelligence does not lie in the phone itself but in our brains. And that it is an inevitable reaction to our environment.

The vast majority of our behaviour is driven by what he calls the self-driving mind. Over time our brains learn to respond to specific stimuli with fixed responses. This is how we develop habits and emotional reactions. So, this is what’s happening when our phones are sitting next to us on the table and luring us to check them. Our self-driving minds are kicking in and reacting automatically to the phone’s stimulus. And because this is an automatic reaction, there’s really not much we can do to stop it.

Behavioural Economist talking about self-driving mind

Sendhil Mullainathan lecturing on the self-driving mind at Chicago’s Booth School of Business


Fortunately, though, things aren’t as bad as they sound. There are ways of getting around the problem. The first – and most obvious – solution is to take away the distraction. By simply leaving your phone outside the room, you are taking away the self-driving mind’s trigger. So, the distraction process never starts.

Secondly, you can gradually change your habits. Behavioural Economist Michael Brownstein explains that “while activations of [the self-driving mind] are unavoidable in specific contexts, they are malleable over time. In particular, [the self-driving mind] may be influenced by changes in habit.” By actively resisting the urge to pick up your phone enough times, you can gradually override the automatic reaction in your brain. Eventually, you can replace it with a more positive reaction and free yourself of this distracting practice.

“while activations of [the self-driving mind] are unavoidable in specific contexts, they are malleable over time. In particular, [the self-driving mind] may be influenced by changes in habit.”



Think about the impact this could have on the efficiency of your workplace. Imagine if you could increase the entire working capacity and intelligence of every meeting. By simply asking people to leave their phones outside, you are directly making them more intelligent and increasing productivity. So, really, they should be thanking you for the service – after all, who wouldn’t want to be a little more intelligent?

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