Imagine that you are interviewing a candidate for a job in your office. You switch your mobile phone to silent mode and place it face down on a table several feet from where you and the candidate are sitting. This way you won't be disturbed, and you are demonstrating to the other person that you are giving them your full attention and won't be distracted.

Well, maybe not. 

Susan WeinschenkSusan Weinschenk has a Ph.D. in Psychology and over 30 years experience as a behavioral scientist. She applies research in behavioral science to predict, understand, and explain what motivates people and how they behave. Her work includes applying behavioral science to the design of websites, software, medical devices, TV ads, physical devices, experiences, and physical spaces.

Editor: Arman Ahmed

In a new study, researchers Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein examined how the mere presence of a cellphone affects the way people communicate with each other. Because people use their mobile devices to stay connected with people who are not in close proximity, it’s easy to build a conditioned response to the device and think of it as “everyone else.” And as long as the cellphone is visible, even if it is on the other side of the room, it represents its owner’s social network; this means that the person's entiresocial network is in the room. The phone triggers thinking about other people and events outside the immediate context, diverting attention away from the experiences occurring at the particular time and place.

Some of this may occur consciously, but some of this “not being present” occurs unconsciously. Social psychologists, including Przybylski and Weinstein, theorize that our devices can, therefore, have a negative impact on our person-to-person relationships.

To investigate this idea, they ran two experiments. In the first, people who did not know each other were assigned to pairs, asked to leave their personal belongings outside the room, and then told to spend 10 minutes discussing an interesting event that occurred to them during the past month. For half of the pairs, there was a mobile phone (not belonging to either individual) on top of a book. The book was on a nearby desk, but not in the direct visual field of the participants. The other half of the pairs had the same room setup, but without a mobile phone.

After the discussion, each participant filled out forms to measure things such as relationship quality, closeness, and positive affect. The pairs that had been in the room with a mobile phone felt less close to each other, and rated the relationship lower than the pairs in a room without a phone present.