BEHAVIOR
February 25, 2019

The Evolutionary Roots of Our Cell Phone Obsession

Many people can’t resist picking up their smartphones -- even when they're with kids and friends . Evolution may explain why.

If you often feel the addictive pull of your smartphone, beckoning you to check for new notifications, you’ll relate to new research that attempts to explain it using human evolution. If you don’t feel that pull, but wonder why people around you are so hooked on their smartphones, the study, by University of Arizona researchers, may help put their obsession in perspective.

The interference of technology with our real-life social interactions has been dubbed “technoference.” If you've ever left a dinner conversation to attend to a text message, or interrupted your child to answer a call, you've experienced it.

Our brains are wired for social connectivity, and we get a chemical boost when we connect with other people. Social media taps into that urge.

The reason we tend to drop everything to react to a message is that as humans we are deeply social creatures, the researchers believe, and we have evolved to be this way. Our brains are wired for social connectivity. We get a chemical boost when we connect with other people. Social media taps into that urge by allowing us to view and comment on other people’s lives. We can then share our own life and view people’s feedback (again in the form of comments and “likes”) as it comes in.

Social media simply expands the network of people with whom we can do that. Years ago, and throughout human evolution, our social networks would have been much smaller. A larger network means that it becomes more time-consuming to keep up with everyone contacting us. And, of course, this need to respond to messages can pull us away from in-person social interactions.

“The draw or pull of a smartphone is connected to very old modules in the brain that were critical to our survival, and central to the ways we connect with others are self-disclosure and responsiveness,” said study author, David Sbarra, in a news release. “Evolution shaped self-disclosure and responsiveness in the context of small kin networks, and we now see these behaviors being cued more or less constantly by social networking sites and through our phones….Look no further than the next person you see scrolling through Facebook and mindlessly hitting the ‘like’ button while his kid is trying to tell him a story. ”

Smartphones have almost become synonymous with social media, and social media triggers an innate human need — social connection — but on a much larger scale than we’ve ever seen before. In other words, there’s essentially a mismatch between our innate social needs and the scale that social media provides.

Even as smartphones give us new ways to connect with each other and disclose information about ourselves and our lives, they also can have unwanted effects on our immediate relationships, Sbarra points out. “When you are distracted into or by the device, then your attention is divided, and being responsive to our partners — an essential ingredient for building intimacy — requires attention in the here and now.”

The authors point out that they’re not arguing that social media or technology is all bad — it clearly has benefits, too. Their goal is really to understand more about the consequences of new technologies on our behavior and relationships. Learning more about how our innate drives and needs interplay with what technology offers will be an important undertaking now and in the future.

“Between 2000 and 2018, we've seen the largest technological advances, arguably, at any point in the last 100 years,” says Sbarra. “We are interested in understanding the role of social relationships in human well-being. We can understand this from the level of what individuals do in relationships, but we can also understand it at the level of societal changes and societal forces that may push on relationships.”

The study is published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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