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Does using your cellphone make you selfish?

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Researchers at the University of Maryland have found that using or describing a cell phone shortly before performing a task makes the user less inclined to volunteer for charity or perform other pro-social tasks.

Galaxy Nexus (GSM) stock (1020)
Galaxy Nexus (GSM) stock (1020)

One of the benefits of technology has been the ability to communicate with others, but a preliminary study suggests that this might actually make us less concerned about the rest of the world. A working paper by the University of Maryland's business school found that after using or even just describing their cell phones, people were less likely to engage in behavior that would benefit others than those who had done nothing or used Facebook instead of their phones.

The study tested three scenarios involving people who had used their phones or described them shortly before performing a task. Researchers found that people who had recently used or described their phones were less inclined to volunteer for community service afterwards, less likely to find others-related words (like them or their) in a word search, and gave up faster when solving puzzles that would lead to charity donations. This happens, the authors argue, because mobile phone use "evokes feelings of social connectedness," making people feel less of a need to associate with or care for others. Mobile phones are also generally used to connect with family or close friends, evoking a connection with a small group of people that may affect how much you care about an out-group.

To be sure that the results were actually based on a feeling of connectedness, rather than simply instant gratification or connection to a frequently-used possession, the researchers tested several types of control groups, who were asked to browse Facebook or describe their televisions instead of their mobile phones. In all cases, the phone users still exhibited less pro-social behavior than the other groups.

As this isn't a published or peer-reviewed paper, the research is far from conclusive. Reports in places like The Atlantic have brought up some conflicting research, but also raised interesting questions about how technology may be forming a new kind of ecosystem where we can become oblivious to those around us while connected to a small group of contacts. For our part, we wonder how mobile phone use would compare not just to other technologies, but to the real social connections that it enables. Should the headline above actually read "Does talking with friends and family make you selfish?"