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Study: Smartphones replace thinking

In the ancient world — circa, say, 2007 —terabytes of information were not available on sleekly designed devices that fit in our pockets. While we now can turn to iPhones and Samsung Galaxys to quickly access facts both essential and trivial — the fastest way to grandmother’s house, how many cups are in a gallon, the name of the actor who played Newman on “Seinfeld” — we once had to keep such tidbits in our heads or, perhaps, in encyclopedia sets.

With the smartphone, such dusty tomes are unnecessary. But new research suggests our devices are more than a convenience — they may be changing the way we think.

In “The brain in your pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to supplant thinking,” forthcoming from the journal Computers in Human Behavior, lead authors Nathaniel Barr and Gordon Pennycook of the psychology department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario said those who think more intuitively and less analytically are more likely to rely on technology.

“That people typically forego effortful analytic thinking in lieu of fast and easy intuition suggests that individuals may allow their Smartphones to do their thinking for them,” the authors wrote.

What’s the difference between intuitive and analytical thinking? In the paper, the authors cite this problem: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The brain-teaser evokes an intuitive response: The ball must cost 10 cents, right? This response, unfortunately, is obviously wrong — 10 cents plus $1.10 equals $1.20, not $1.10. Only through analytic thinking can one arrive at the correct response: The ball costs 5 cents. (Confused? Five cents plus $1.05 equals $1.10.)

It’s just this sort of analytical thinking that avid smartphone users seem to avoid. For the paper, researchers asked subjects how much they used their smartphones, then gave them tests to measure not just their intelligence, but how they processed information.

The takeaway: “Although the tendency to seek knowledge and information is often equated with intelligence, cognitive ability was associated with less Smartphone use and less time spend [sic] using online search engines,” the authors wrote. “This connection between cognitive ability and Smartphone use may be reflective of the possibility that more knowledgeable individuals are less likely to require online information search when confronted with a problem in everyday life. ”

Is this bad? Maybe.

“It is important for people think in an analytical way,” Pennycook said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. ” … There might be a net benefit to using our phones, but we still have to think in analytical ways to make sure we are correct.”

The authors stressed they are not offering a prescription for a smartphone-free life.

“It’s not that smartphones will make us stupid,” Pennycook said. This is correlation, not causation.

“It could be that a (pre-existing) inclination to reason less effortfully leads some people to use their smartphones to search for information more often,” Tania Lombrozo wrote in an NPR story about the research. “On this view, smartphone usage is the symptom, not the cause, of lazy thinking.”

To make this point, the researchers invoked a high-school English class favorite: “Harrison Bergeron,” a Kurt Vonnegut story in which a gifted man is encased in cumbersome metal to make him less able — and more like everyone else.

The story “forecast a future in which personal technological devices are used to suppress the abilities of the most able,” they said. “… It seems that the opposite has become reality, whereby the Smartphone operates to provide information to those less willing and able to think analytically.”

Still, the researchers — citing the work of Nicholas Carr, author of books such as “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” — said we may need to be able to think beyond our gadgets.

“Could you as effectively use knowledge on screen as someone who just knows it?” Barr said. The work “strongly suggests we should be trying to encode information ourselves rather than externally sourcing it.”

In other words, as the authors wrote: “The use of Smartphones … raises many questions that cannot be ‘Googled’ for an answer.”