Study: Smartphones May Be Unraveling the Fabric of Trust for Fellow Humans

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February 23, 2017

There is a new nickname for people who have their faces buried in their electronic devices: “smartphone zombies.” The worry that a distracted user, eyes downcast on his or her phone, might step into the path of an oncoming car has so rattled one city in the Netherlands that it is experimenting with a new lighting system. New LED light strips embedded in sidewalks signal smartphone zombies when it is safe to cross the street.

New research from the University of Virginia is warning that smartphones may be having another negative affect: sowing distrust of strangers and other people.

Kostadin Kushlev, a psychology research scientist at UVA, analyzed data from the most recent World Values Survey, which is conducted by a global network of social scientists studying changing values and their impact on social and political life.

He and his colleague, Jason Proulx of the University of British Columbia, focused on the survey’s results about the United States. “In that data, they have items about how much people trust strangers, how much they trust their neighbors, how much they trust people from other religions, other nationalities, their family and friends,” Kushlev said.

The survey also had a series of questions about how people obtain information. “So that included, again, from family and friends, from newspapers, television, radio ... and as a separate category, it was mobile phones.”

Kushlev and Proulx then looked at the correlation between the trust variables and the different ways people obtain information.

“What was really interesting was that all of the other ways of obtaining information were positively related to all of the trust variables, essentially,” Kushlev said. “But only the mobile phone variable was negatively related to trusting strangers – so the more you use your mobile phone information, the less you trust strangers, the less you trust people from other religions, other nationalities, your neighbors,” he said. “But there was no correlation between mobile phones and trusting family and friends.”

The researchers began to think about the unique properties of mobile phones. “We were thinking that maybe what’s unique here is that smartphones make the getting of information so convenient,” Kushlev said. “We can get information anywhere, so we really don’t need to rely on others anymore. In a sense, now that we can trust our technology so much to tell us everything wherever we are, maybe we don’t need to trust those around us as much.” Again, this result did not apply to family and friends.

Kushlev said more research must be done because causality cannot be inferred from the correlational data. “It’s just an initial glimpse into this possibility,” he said.

The research was published late last year in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed, open-access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science.

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Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications