Research Shows Checking Your Phone Is Contagious Like Yawning

The ‘chameleon effect’ helps people blend into a crowd

Three teenagers sit on the side of a large fountain and look at their smartphones
The impulse to check your phone after someone nearby checks theirs is an example of the chameleon effect, new research suggests. Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

A study published last month in the Journal of Ethology suggests the same psychological phenomenon that makes yawns contagious also influences people to check their smartphones, reports the Guardian.

During the experiment, a researcher either looked at and interacted with their smartphone, or just fiddled with the phone without looking at it. Then they looked around for 30 seconds, counting up the number of people around who started using their phones, too.

The study shows that after the first person starts to use their phone, about half of the people around them check their phones, too.

“We have a need to follow the norms imposed on us by people around us, to [match] our actions with theirs in this automatic way,” says Elisabetta Palagi, a social behavior expert at the University of Pisa, to Christa Lesté-Lasserre at New Scientist. “But smartphones can increase social isolation through interference and disruption with real-life, ongoing activities.”

The study looked at phone use as an example of the chameleon effect, which is the way people change their behavior to match what’s happening around them. This is why people often pick up each others’ mood or gestures during a conversation, and why yawns are so contagious.

The researchers usually took on the role of the “trigger,” or the person who checked their phone first. They tested the two versions of phone-use—looking or not looking—in a variety of settings, like in waiting rooms, at work, at restaurants or at home. The trigger person recorded the effect glancing at their phone had on their neighbors, as well as characteristics like the others’ ages and relationship to the trigger person.

Out of about 100 people who saw both versions of phone use, everyone was equally susceptible to the chameleon effect’s impulse to check their phone.

“Most people get infected by other people’s mobile phone behavior, without even realizing it,” says Palagi to New Scientist.

The odds that people nearby would use their phones were about 28 times higher when the first user actually looked at their phone while they used it, compared to when the trigger person just held the phone and tapped it without looking. That suggests that the goal of interacting with whatever’s onscreen is what inspires people to pick up their own phones, and not just the movement of picking up a phone and tapping the screen.

But when people were at a meal, they were far less likely to check their phones after a trigger event. The researchers suggest this is because people have other ways to subconsciously mimic each other, like matching facial expressions and posture.

“The low mimicry response recorded in presence of food could be even more pronounced considering that our sample comes from Italy, where the culture of food is historically and intrinsically connected to social aggregation and conviviality,” write the researchers in the study.

The researchers made the observations for the study between May and September of 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, so they note that further study will be necessary to tease out whether the shift toward virtual social interaction had anything to do with the effects they measured, per the Guardian.

Additional research could also dig into the effect of this chameleon effect on people who don’t have smart phones—do they feel isolated when they can’t check a phone at the same time as everyone else? And do smartphone advertisements with actors have a greater impact than when the phone appears alone?

For now, the effect seems both quick and subconscious, at least anecdotally.

“One woman who was sitting across from me in a waiting room saw me check my phone,” says University of Pisa biologist Veronica Maglieri, a co-author on the study, to New Scientist. “Within seconds she took out her phone and called someone and said, ‘Hey, I just felt like calling you; I don’t know why.’”

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