ATHENS, Ga. — Countless people look to their smartphones for approval and happiness, but researchers from the University of Georgia find that people would be better off talking to someone in person instead. Study authors report that when people were asked to either scroll on their phones, sit quietly by themselves, or have a conversation with a stranger, participants usually believed talking was the most enjoyable.
Perhaps even more importantly, while researchers found that participants in their study generally expected to get more enjoyment from conversing with a real person than using their smartphone, that didn’t always translate to actually following that instinct. In other words, while most people probably know scrolling aimlessly isn’t a rewarding or worthwhile activity, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to stop.
“When people are out in the real world, they have these options,” says lead author and doctoral student Christina Leckfor in a university release. “We were interested in getting a sense of how people compare their options, both in terms of how they expect to feel and then how they actually feel after doing these things.”
To analyze these perceptions, researchers separated study participants into four distinct groups. Half of the groups predicted how they would feel about different actions, and the other two groups completed the assigned actions. Then, all four groups ranked options from the most to least enjoyable. To measure feelings around these tasks, all four groups were asked to use a 0-to-100 scale to rate how likely they were to experience a positive or negative emotion from engaging in a task.
“We thought people might underestimate how much they would enjoy talking to a stranger and overestimate how much they would enjoy using their smartphones,” Leckfor continues. “But that’s not what we found. Across our studies, people were actually more accurate in predicting how they would feel than we thought they’d be.”
Between the groups that predicted and those who completed a task, the team recorded emotional values on a similar spectrum. When given three options (use a smartphone, sit alone, or talk to a stranger), the conversation held the highest positive emotional value across both groups. Using a smartphone ranked second, and sitting alone came in third.
Adding more options shuffled up the results even further. After providing volunteers with specific smartphone tasks (watching videos, scrolling social media, or texting) besides just talking or sitting quietly, participants reported they would enjoy watching videos the most, followed by talking to a stranger, using social media, and then texting. Sitting alone once again ranked last.
A major difference, according to Leckfor, stemmed from the emotions associated with these tasks. While people admitted they would prefer using their smartphone in some capacity, they saw a higher mood boost after talking to a stranger. From an average baseline of 52.2 out of 100, conversations increased positive emotions by roughly five points to 57.68. Conversely, watching videos provided a 2.4-point bump to 54.62, and texting resulted in a drop off to 47.56.
“It surprised us that even though participants reported an improved mood after talking to a stranger, they still ranked texting above talking to a stranger,” Leckfor adds. “This could mean that people don’t always recognize the potential benefits of a conversation, or they’re not prioritizing that information. It also shows that just experiencing something as enjoyable isn’t always enough to get us to want to do it.”
Across all measures, sitting alone ranked last, with many giving it the lowest potential for positive emotions and the highest potential for negative emotions. This finding, in particular, may indicate that participants prefer an activity or escape in comparison to solitude, researchers theorize, but it may also be a result of the study’s forced isolation.
“Each study participant was instructed to spend that time alone,” Leckfor notes. “They didn’t have a choice. Some previous research shows that when people have a choice, and freely choose to spend time in solitude, they enjoy it more than when it’s forced upon them.”
Outside of a study setting, it can be tough to consider and rank what options are available in your free time, Leckfor admits, but these findings nonetheless highlight the importance of giving it extra thought before picking up a smartphone.
“In the real world, we’re not always consciously making these comparisons, even if you have all of these choices,” the study author concludes. “But this study taps into the idea that maybe we are better at understanding how we feel about different activities if we take the time to give them conscious thought.”
The study is published in The Journal of Social Psychology.
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