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Talking on Your Cellphone Doesn’t Make You a Jerk, But It Does Make You Less Likely to Help Others

It doesn't mean you're NOT a jerk, either, but correlation is not causation.



According to a recent study, people talking on cell phones in public were much less likely to offer help to a stranger than those who were not. This sounds like a win for those of us who think that all cell-phone talkers are the literal worst, right? Well, not necessarily.

Entitled, “A preliminary examination of cell phone use and helping behavior,” and published in the December 2013 issue of Psychological Reports, the study claims that the “use of a cell phone reduces attention and increases response times.” Stephen Reysen and Curtis Puryear, two researchers from the Texas A&M University-Commerce, set up an experiment in which 30 men and 32 women were confronted with a stranger in a leg brace who’d dropped a stack of magazines on the street in such a way that people would have to step around him to continue walking. Only 9% of the 33 people who were using a phone at the time stopped to help, whereas 72% of the 29 people without cell phones did help.

At first glance, this would appear to be undeniable proof that cell phone users are terrible people — but the study itself doesn’t actually speak to why the cell phone users aren’t stopping to help, just that they aren’t. This doesn’t automatically mean they’re history’s greatest monsters. After all, we know from the ‘Good Samaritan‘ study that lateness or hurriedness can affect a person’s ability to help much more than their moral or religious convictions can (though it should be noted that both studies suffer from incredibly small sample sizes, which can affect results).

As Dr. Reysen admitted in an interview with Am Sci, nothing’s really been proved except that busy people are busy. “As this is an initial study, it simply shows the phenomenon exists; we can’t say why people on cell phones are unlikely to help a person in need,” he said. “However, based on prior research, a likely explanation is that talking on the phone increases one’s cognitive load and reduces one’s attention to the immediate surroundings.” So basically, walking and talking and holding a phone all at the same time is already too much for most people to take.

Of course, he does later point out his own personal bias in the interview, suggesting that people might be “faking a conversation on the phone” so as to appear busy so that they have an legitimate excuse not to help people. To be fair, that’s a pretty ingenious idea. I might have to try that the next time I think I’m going to get approached by a bunch of street canvassers with clipboards.

The moral of the story? It’s totally fine if you’re pissed off at the guy on his cell phone who won’t shut up, but you don’t have to try to justify your annoyance with science. It’s okay to just be annoyed. After all, someone is probably annoyed at you for some reason right now, too. As the great Liz Lemon once said, “All God’s children are terrible.” That includes us.

(via Discover and Am Sci, image via Ed Yourdon)

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