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February 15, 2012
Use a Cellphone? You May Be More Selfish Than Those Who Don't


Most people have become aware of the dangers of cellphones and the disease promoting effects of their radiation. New research now casts light on how they affect our social construct. Though cellphones are typically promoted as devices that connect people, they may make users less socially minded, finds a recent study from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.


The Pollyanna Principle, put forth in 1969, argues that there is a universal human tendency to use positive words more often, easily and in more ways than negative words. Is this principle invalid when it comes to cell phone use?

Marketing professors Anastasiya Pocheptsova and Rosellina Ferraro, with graduate student, Ajay T. Abraham, conducted a series of experiments on test groups of cellphone users. The findings appear in their working paper, The Effect of Mobile Phone Use on Prosocial Behavior.

While traditional explanations for the exceptionally rich evolution of human language have involved explicitly goal-directed behaviors like coordinating a hunt, some anthropologists see language as a vehicle for humanity's essential social characteristics, especially our capacities for sharing, altruism and other "prosocial" behavior. From this perspective, language should reflect underlying social imperatives. Researchers have found that many of these characteristics are being lost amidst the digital revolution.

Prosocial behavior, as defined in the study, is action intended to benefit another person or society as a whole.

The researchers found that after a short period of cellphone use the subjects were less inclined to volunteer for a community service activity when asked, compared to the control-group counterparts. The cell phone users were also less persistent in solving word problems -- even though they knew their answers would translate to a monetary donation to charity.

The decreased focus on others held true even when participants were merely asked to draw a picture of their cellphones and think about how they used them.

The study involved separate sets of college student subjects -- both men and women and generally in their early 20s. "We would expect a similar pattern of effects with people from other age groups," said Ferraro. "Given the increasing pervasiveness of cellphones, it does have the potential to have broad social implications."

The authors cited previous research in explaining a root cause of their findings: "The cellphone directly evokes feelings of connectivity to others, thereby fulfilling the basic human need to belong." This results in reducing one's desire to connect with others or to engage in empathic and prosocial behavior.

We are supposed to be a prosocial storytelling species. As language emerged and evolved over the last million years, positive words, it seems, have been more widely and deeply engrained into our communications than negative ones. Yet researchers are baffled when this communication is not transferred within the confines of the cellphone using population.

The study also distinguished its subjects from users of other social media -- Facebook users -- in one of the tests. The authors found that participants felt more connected to others because of their cellphones than because of their Facebook accounts, suggesting that this difference in connectedness was the underlying driver of the observed phenomenon.

Related investigation involves the authors studying the effects of using other types of technology on prosocial behavior.


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