NEW YORK – For many Americans, the smartphone is often the first thing they see when they wake up and the last thing they put down before going to bed. But while many experts label our relationships with our smartphones as an unhealthy “addiction,” a recent study from Columbia Business School challenges conventional wisdom. The authors Columbia Business School’s Kravis Professor of Business Michel Pham and Shiri Melumad, Assistant Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School and Columbia Business School PhD alumna, find that the devices may be catching on because of human psychology and not necessarily because of a specific addictive quality. In their research, the authors find that smartphones provide a tangible source of psychological reassurance similar to the soothing effect of a pacifier for small children – a very portable device that is not only virtually always with us but is also highly personal and provides tactile benefits.
The authors’ research builds on a combination of experimental and field studies finding that previous fears of smartphone addiction may be overblown. The research team conducted a large field study of more than 1,300 participants and three smaller, controlled laboratory studies to find that in times of stress people are more prone to turn to their smartphones than to other objects at their disposal and that, once engaged with, smartphones are even capable of alleviating people’s stress. In the laboratory studies, the researchers designed experiments to compare the degree of stress relief from engaging in a particular activity on one’s personal smartphone to engaging in the same task on comparable devices. Participants who engaged with their smartphone experienced greater stress relief than those engaging in the same task on their personal laptop, or on an otherwise similar smartphone belonging to someone else.
These results suggest that smartphones are one of the most dramatic changes in consumer and human behavior since the arrival of the internet—but not simply because of their ubiquity and pervasiveness. In particular, these results imply that smartphones are not merely an additional platform on which consumers can engage in online activities—instead, the device also seems to be changing users’ psychological experience when engaging in consumption activities. With no signs of slowing down, research on the “mobile” revolution will continue to be critical for telecom industry executives, business leaders, and the public alike.
The study, The Smartphone as a Pacifying Technology, is available online here.
About the researchers
Michel Tuan Pham
Professor Pham’s business expertise covers the areas of marketing strategy and management, branding, customer and consumer psychology, trademark psychology, marketing communication, and...Read more.