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Friday, March 6, 2015

Are Smartphones Becoming a Substitute for Thinking?

Alex Pietrowski

Our smartphones are like a wealth of information at our fingertips. They help us find directions to new restaurants, offer information about the places we want to visit, and can instantly answer any question about whatever inquiry fills the mind. But are we getting lazy and avoiding thinking about things that we might already know?

A team of researchers at the University of Waterloo asked just that same question and conducted three studies with a total of 600 participants. The study categorized the subjects by measuring their cognitive style, ranging from intuitive to analytical, and it also evaluated verbal and numerical skills. The study also analyzed the participants’ device usage habits.

What the researchers found was that the convenience of smartphones is making us less likely to use our own brainpower. This effect was more noticeable in intuitive thinkers, which are defined as personas that rely on instincts to make decisions. This type of person seems to be becoming lazier when it comes to thinking about a problem or question, and more often turns to the smartphone’s search engine for answers.
“They may look up information that they actually know or could easily learn, but are unwilling to make the effort to actually think about it.” ~ Gordon Pennycook, co-lead author of the study, and a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at Waterloo.
“Decades of research has revealed that humans are eager to avoid expending effort when problem-solving and it seems likely that people will increasingly use their smartphones as an extended mind.” ~ Nathaniel Barr, the other lead author of the paper, and a postdoctoral researcher at Waterloo.
The other type of thinker, identified by the researchers as the analytical thinker with stronger cognitive skills and who is less likely to go with a gut feeling when solving problems or seeking answers, showed a greater eagerness to think without using the Internet for information.
“Our research provides support for an association between heavy smartphone use and lowered intelligence,” said Pennycook. “Whether smartphones actually decrease intelligence is still an open question that requires future research.”
“Our reliance on smart phones and other devices will likely only continue to rise,” said Barr. “It’s important to understand how smartphones affect and relate to human psychology before these technologies are so fully ingrained that it’s hard to recall what life was like without them. We may already be at that point.”
The researchers did not find any correlation between cognitive abilities and heavy use of social media and entertainment apps. An important point they did make is that “avoiding using our own minds to problem-solve might have adverse consequences for aging.”

The body is not the only part of you that needs exercise. Perhaps next time you’re working on remembering a random fact or are faced with a problem, think about it a little bit more and let your brain do some heavy lifting before pulling out your smartphone.


Alex Pietrowski is an artist and writer concerned with preserving good health and the basic freedom to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. He is a staff writer for, where this article first appeared, and an avid student of Yoga and life.

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