Do mobile phones cause you to trust less?

If you use your smart phone frequently, you’re less likely to trust strangers.

Kostadin Kushlev of the University of Virginia and Jason Proulx of the University of British Columbia came to this conclusion by analyzing data from the most recent World Values Survey. The World Values Survey is a U.S. nationally-representative poll in which participants report how frequently they get information from various sources, including TV, radio, the Internet, other people, and mobile phones. The researchers found that the more often people used their phones to obtain information, the less they trusted strangers, neighbors, and people from other religions and nationalities.

This finding is surprising; especially since the researchers confirmed that getting information from any source other than a mobile phone meant people trusted others more rather than less. This distrust also did not apply for people who got their information online through a laptop – only through a mobile device. It’s important to point out that using a mobile phone had no impact on how much people trusted those who were close to them, such as their family and friends.

The authors admit the statistical effect was small but point out that small effects can have large practical significance. Trust matters:

When trust between people in a country goes up, for example, so does economic growth. At the individual level, people who trust others more also tend to have better health and higher well-being.

Or, as Bill McDermott says, “Trust is the ultimate human currency.”

I was skeptical when I first read the research findings and suspected there must be some other non-observable variable. As it turns out, the researchers were also initially skeptical: “we did everything we could think of to identify other, non-phone reasons that might be causing the results we got.” Mobile phone usage is correlated with lower trust.

Of course, correlation isn’t the same as cause. Perhaps distrustful people are more likely to use their phone to get information. In addition, I use my mobile phone extensively for information – driving directions, restaurant recommendations, even researching this blog. I don’t think using my mobile to get information has impacted my trust of strangers.

Regardless of the root cause, one conclusion is warranted: let’s put down our phones from time to time and interact with each other. I can’t scientifically prove it but it’s likely to improve trust.


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