A Hidden Way Smartphones Make People Less Smart

critical thinking Jan 19, 2024

Here’s a simple question (and don’t look up the answer on your phone): If two people want to know if water boils faster or slower in Antarctica, who’s more intelligent: the person who is slow to look up the information or the person who’s quick to search the internet on their phone because they are driven to know the answer?

We’ll get to the answer in a minute. But first, and as you probably know, there’s been no shortage of news on the fact smartphones are actually counterproductive to fostering critical thinking in the digital age.  Doom scrolling, watching the latest TikTok dance craze, observing a celebrity Instagram feud, or following the political rage-posts on Facebook are no substituted for reading offline or thoughtful person-to-person conversation.

However, while none of the above is novel, research tells us that smartphones pose deeper, hidden, unobvious dangers to critical thinking.  In fact, one of their dangers might feel counterintuitive.  And that brings us back to the question about looking things up on our phones.

Should We Look Up Info On Our Phones?

Instinctually, many people quickly conclude that the person who was quicker to look up the information about Antarctica is the more intelligent person.  The reasons seem clear: First, that person’s mind is only the one that’s thirstier for information.  Second, it’s also the mind that’s processing the question faster.  And third, it’s also easy to presume that the person who looks up that information faster has also looked up other information faster, and thus generally knows more than other people.  Thus, a quicker move to information can be seen as a step towards better critical thinking.  After all, more knowledge, especially if it is credible, is one important element of good reasoning, especially since we can’t think critically about something for which we know absolutely nothing.

Extended Mind

But, according to research, the person who’s quicker to look up information is less intelligent. To understand why, you first need to understand a simple notion called “extended mind” theory. Coined by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998, the “extended mind” is the simple yet powerful idea that our minds do not function completely independently, but rather in conjunction with our environment.  As a simple example, consider an online calendar, which records an event and then reminds us of it.  When we use a calendar, our brains do not have to do the work of remembering important dates and times.  Instead, the calendar functions as an extension of our minds, doing some of the work that our brains would otherwise need to do independently.  So, instead of having to remember that you’re having lunch with your friend tomorrow, your “extended mind” can just make a reminder pop up on your phone and, voila, you’ve “remembered.”

With calendars as a simpler example, it’s not much of a leap to fathom the vast power of smartphones as extended minds in our lives.  They serve as cognitive crutches for other thinking we’d otherwise do without them.  And that’s where quickly turning to them for internet searches can be a negative rather than a positive factor in critical thinking.

To observe that, researchers first administered critical thinking tests to a group of subjects.  Then, they observed how quickly the subjects would turn to their phones to look up information.  When comparing the two, they found that “those less willing to think analytically are more prone to heavy smartphone search engine use” because they “may be prone to look up information that they actually know or could easily learn,” but don’t want to do the work of thinking about it for themselves.  

In other words, when confronted with something to think about, people who are lazier thinkers, or perhaps just weaker ones, are more likely to just grab their phones and look up the answers, but people who are stronger thinkers are more inclined to do the work of at least trying to come up with the answers on their own. Thus, when curious as to how fast water boils in Antarctica, the person who tries to figure it out on their own, the one who uses their own brain rather than relying on the cognitive crutch of their “extended mind,” is typically the better critical thinker.  They might not get the information as quickly, but they practice using their own critical thinking skills to reason their way to answers.

Cognitive Misers

Unfortunately, when it comes down to it, all of our minds have some tendency to be a “cognitive miser.” What that means is that our minds don’t want to spend more energy than required; they want to be “miserly” about spending cognitive energy.  They want to be lazy, and some minds want to be lazier than others.

Grabbing a phone as a mental crutch for looking up answers is easy; thinking critically on one’s own, especially when faced with incomplete information, requires much more work, but it’s that work that exercises our thinking “muscles” and helps refine our brain’s processes for thinking better.  Even though we all need to look up things we don’t know sometimes, relying too quickly and too heavily on our smartphones as our extended mind sacrifices wonderful opportunities to exercise our brains.  

There are exceptions, of course.  If you want to know whether or not your favorite restaurant has a reservation available tonight, you might as well just look it up.  No amount of thinking is going to help you determine whether they’re booked.  But for most things, smartphones that put all the world’s information at your fingertips might be the problem.  Smartphones might help you know more information, but they’re also helping you evade opportunities to think for yourself.  They’re helping your brain be “miserly.” 

Of course, it’s important to make a caveat, which is that research outcomes are about aggregates, not individuals.  The fact that a colleague of yours might be quick to look things up on their phone doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not intelligent.  Nevertheless, next time you reach for your phone for that internet search or “ask Siri” about something, think again instead.

Oh, and if you want to know, water boils faster in Antarctica than in most other places.  With the highest average elevation on earth, around 8200 ft (2500m), and thus the lowest air pressure pushing against the water molecules, water boils much faster. Whereas it boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celsius at sea level, in Antarctica it would boil closer to around 200 degree Fahrenheit, or lower.  Of course, that’s assuming you’re boiling it inside at room temperature.  If you want to do it outside, well, good luck.

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