February 20, 2019

Relationships on hold

Since the release of the first iPhone, the landscape of social relationships has changed. Smartphones — and the constant access they provide to text messaging and social media — make it easier for people to disclose personal information and respond in real time.

But doing so in the presence of a close friend, family member or romantic partner may leave that person feeling ignored, annoyed or even pushed away. That’s according to a growing body of research on “technoference,” or the potential interference smartphones and other technologies can have in our face-to-face social interactions.


“Our phones are often beckoning us to respond to them through the notifications we receive,” said Richard Slatcher, social psychology professor and director of the Close Relationships Laboratory at Wayne State University. “When our phone beeps and buzzes, we’re programmed to respond to it. All of these things are drawing us away, potentially, from face-to-face interactions.”

Slatcher, along with Julia Briskin, a Wayne State graduate student and doctoral candidate in psychology, and David Sbarra, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, recently completed a review paper titled, “Smartphones and Close Relationships: The Case for an Evolutionary Mismatch.” The paper will be published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

The Wayne State-University of Arizona connection was made in 2017 during the RoBUST symposium held at WSU’s campus. Slatcher attended a presentation Sbarra gave at the conference; later that day, the pair connected about their mutual interest in the role of technology and relationships. Slatcher mentioned a topic that Briskin had approached him with that involved smartphones and relationships. Sbarra suggested adding the evolutionary piece, and the review paper was born.

For Briskin, the research topic was personal. She said she is constantly mindful of not using her smartphone when she is around someone, and she is not active on social media — primarily for some of the reasons the review paper outlines.


“I was interested in this topic because I always found it aversive when other people are on their phones and I’m trying to talk to them,” Briskin said. “I know how easy it is to pull your phone out, even just to check the time, and then get swept up looking at text messages, browsing the internet and so on. It happens to a lot of people.”

Divided attention, according to the researchers, may lead to relationship conflict. For example, the review paper cites a study of 143 married women, with more than 70 percent reporting that mobile phones cause frequent interference in their relationships.

The research trio has an explanation for why humans are so drawn to their smartphones, even when the devices take us out of the moment in our close relationships: evolutionary history.

“Across evolutionary history, to build coalitions and trust, you have to open up about yourself. You have to make yourself vulnerable,” Slatcher said. “How the other person responds to you is a sign that you can trust them and can become closer to that person. We really crave these things in our social relationships. More than 80 percent of our time on social media is spent sharing our thoughts and offering self-disclosure.”

The advent of Facebook’s “like” button, for example, allowed people to respond even more readily to another person on social media. “The feeling we get seeing the ‘likes’ increase can be intoxicating,” Slatcher said, “and that taps into humans’ evolved need of others being responsive.”

In their paper, Slatcher, Briskin and Sbarra go beyond the idea that technology is simply attention grabbing to suggest that there may be an evolutionary mismatch between smartphones and the social behaviors that help form and maintain close social relationships.


“Smartphones and their affordances create new contexts for disclosing information about who we are and for being responsive to others, and these virtual connections may have downstream unwanted effects on our current relationships,” Sbarra said. “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.”

So what can be done to curb our insatiable need to constantly check our smartphones?

“It’s about changing your habits,” Briskin said. “If you tend to pick your phone up at certain times — in the morning, at lunch or before bed — try to intervene with yourself. Find something alternative to do.”

And sometimes it just comes down to remembering common courtesy.

“One thing we can be certain about is that when we’re with our loved ones and they make a bid for our attention, put the phone or other technological device down,” Slatcher said. “Multitasking in relationships doesn’t work. It’s really hard to keep your attention on what the other person is saying when you’re also looking at your phone.”

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