- Phubbing is micro-ostracism. It leaves someone, even while with another, suddenly alone. Tweet This
- A real touch beats being pinged. A real smile beats an emoticon. An eye-to-eye talk beats an online chat. We are made for face-to-face relationship. Tweet This
- Even the phone’s mere presence decreases people’s feelings of closeness with their conversational partner. Tweet This
Some years ago, an NBC “Dateline” producer invited me to her office to brainstorm possible psychology-related segments. But a focused conversation proved difficult, because every three minutes or so she would turn away to check an incoming email or take a call—leaving me feeling a bit demeaned.
In today’s smartphone age, such interruptions are pervasive. In the midst of conversation, your friend’s attention is diverted by the ding of an incoming message, the buzz of a phone call, or just the urge to check email. You’re being phubbed—meaning phone-snubbed.
In one small survey of 143 U.S. adults, 46 percent reported experiencing this with their partners, and 23 percent said it was a problem in their relationship, as when partners glance at their phone during conversation or check it during conversational lulls. Phubbing (an Australian-origin term) predicts lower relationship satisfaction. That result would not surprise evolutionary psychologist David Sbarra and his colleagues, who note “an evolutionary mismatch” between close relationships and smartphones, which “usurp attentional resources” typically allocated to mutual responsiveness.
Could such effects be shown experimentally? A study by Ryan Dwyer and his University of British Columbia colleagues recruited people to share a restaurant meal with their phones on the table or not. “When phones were present (vs. absent), participants felt more distracted, which reduced how much they enjoyed spending time with their friends/family.”
Another experiment, by University of Kent psychologists Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen Douglas, helps explain phone-snubbing’s social harm. They invited students to put themselves in the skin of a person seen from the back while viewing a 3-minute animated conversation. In one condition, the conversational partner sits down, puts the phone on the table, and thereafter never touches it. In a partial phubbing condition the participant, after 30 seconds, occasionally gazes down at and swipes the phone. In an extensive phubbing condition, the distraction commences immediately and continues. The result: the more phubbing the more students felt a diminished sense of belonging and self-esteem. Phubbing is micro-ostracism. It leaves someone, even while with another, suddenly alone.
Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas also have found that phubbing can produce a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle “that makes the behavior become normative.” Other research reveals that phubbing often provokes resentment, deflated mood, and jealousy. Even the phone’s mere presence decreases people’s feelings of closeness with their conversational partner.
Even the phone’s mere presence decreases people’s feelings of closeness with their conversational partner.
Smartphones, to be sure, are a boon to relationships as well as a bane. They connect us to people we don’t see—enlarging our sense of belonging. As one who lives thousands of miles from family members, I love Facetime and messaging. Yet a real touch beats being pinged. A real smile beats an emoticon. An eye-to-eye talk beats an online chat. We are made for face-to-face relationship. Alexander Graham Bell’s first-ever phone call was, ironically, a plea for face-to-face contact: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
When I mentioned this essay to my wife, Carol, she wryly observed that I (blush) phub her “all the time.” So, what can we do, while enjoying our smartphones, to cut the phone-snubbing? I reached out to some friends and family and got variations on these ideas:
- “When we get together to play cards, I often put everyone's phone in the next room.”
- “When out to dinner, I often ask friends to put their phones away. I find the presence of phones so distracting; the mere threat of interruption diminishes the conversation.” Even better: “When some of us go out to dinner, we pile up our phones; the first person to give in and reach for a phone pays for the meal.”
- “I sometimes stop talking until the person reestablishes eye-contact.”
- “I say, ‘I hope everything is OK.’” Or this: “I stop and ask is everything ok? Do you need a minute? I often receive an apology and the phone is put away.”
- “I have ADHD and I am easily distracted. Thus, when someone looks at their phone, and I'm distracted, I say, ‘I'm sorry, but I am easily distracted. Where was I?’ . . . It's extremely effective, because nobody wants me to have to start over.”
Seeing phubbing’s effects has helped me change my own behavior. Since that unfocused conversation at NBC, I have made a practice, when meeting with someone in my office, to ignore the ringing phone. Nearly always, people pause the conversation to let me take the call. But no, I explain, we are having a conversation and you have taken the time to be here with me. Whoever that is can leave a message or call back. Right now, you are who’s important.
Come to think of it, I should take that same attitude home.
David G. Myers is a social psychologist and a communicator of psychological science to college students and the general public. His scientific writings, supported by National Science Foundation fellowships and grants, have appeared in three dozen academic periodicals, including Science, the American Scientist, the American Psychologist, and Psychological Science.
Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from How Do We Know Ourselves: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022) by David G. Myers. It is reprinted here with permission.