Smart phones may be dumbing down tolerance in a polarized election

Kelly on cell-phone

By Mariah Quintanilla

With a polarized electorate decided the fate of the nation today, could smart phones have widened the divide?

Voters and pundits alike are pondering the lack of trust between Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S. One recent study published in PLoS ONE reported a connection between cell phone use and lack of trust. The “more people relied on their mobile phones for information, the less they trusted strangers, neighbors and people from other religions and nationalities,” the study concluded.

Psychologists and study researchers Kostadin Kushlev of the University of Virginia and Jason Proulx of the University of British Columbia conducted the study to determine “whether the ability to instantly gratify our information needs anytime and anywhere have any bearing on how much we trust those around us—from neighbors to strangers.”

They used the responses of around 2,200 middle-aged Americans from the World Values Survey (WVS) to question “how much they trusted their family, neighborhood, people they knew personally, people they were meeting for the first time, people of other religions, and people of other nationalities.”

The more people relied on cell phones as sources of information, the less they trusted people they didn’t know, the psychologists concluded. Heavy reliance on cell phones may cut people off from others and decrease people’s interdependence with one another. Think about the strangers you pass on your way to work or the cashiers at your local grocery store.

A common narrative from Republican candidates throughout the election is the importance of protecting Americans from the perceived threats of immigration—economic stress, social anxiety and safety concerns. This ideology seems to tap a lack of trust in people that look different or come from different countries.

This unlimited access to information should bring people closer together instead of farther apart, and perhaps that is still the case. When people got their information through other conduits, such as television, radio, newspapers and the internet in general, people trusted others more, according to the study. The results also do not account for different trust values that may be determined by the region or setting—rural or urban—that people live in.

Additionally, the general lack of trust from relying on cell phones for information did not apply to people’s family members or close companions.

“These findings provide an intriguing first glimpse into the possible unforeseen costs of convenient information access for the social lubricant of society—our sense of trust in one another,” concluded Kushlev and Proulx.

Photo at top: Cell phone use may be contributing to distrust in a polarized election. (Mariah Quintanilla/MEDILL)