Separation from your mobile boosts your cognitive capacity.

Separation From Your Cellphone Boosts Your Cognitive Capacity

By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel

In a recent weekly digest, we explored the pros and cons about cellphones in the classroom. In today’s blog post, I would like to contribute to that discussion by presenting a new research study that looked into the effects of the mere presence of one’s cellphone while performing cognitive tasks (1). The findings of Ward et al.’s (1) experiments are intriguing and bear important practical implications. Let’s dive in and see what they did in their study, shall we?

Cellphone presence and cognitive capacity

The researchers used a simple and straight-forward study set-up. They invited students to participate in an experiment where students were randomly assigned into one of three conditions.

  • In the “other room” condition, students were asked to leave their belongings (including their cellphones) in the lobby before coming into the room where the experiment would take place.
  • In other two conditions, students were asked to take their belongings with them to the experiment room, and were either told to leave the cellphone out of sight, e.g., in their bags or pockets (bag/pocket condition) or place it face down on the desk within sight (desk condition).

 Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

All participants were asked to make sure to put their phones on silent with vibration deactivated. Then, participants worked on two cognitive tasks: One working memory task – called Automated Operation Span task (OSpan) – where people are asked to actively process information while holding other information in mind. For this specific task, they have to solve math equations while remembering random letters in the order presented. For the other task – the Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices (RSPM) – participants had to identify the missing piece in a matrix pattern. This test is used to assess fluid intelligence and your performance depends to a large extent on the available attentional capacities to identify the underlying rule of the pattern matrix. Thus, both tasks are cognitively demanding and require people’s full attention. Consequently, any disruption in attention or additional process that takes away attention capacity harms performance in these tasks.

The researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that the mere presence of one’s own cellphone in immediate sight or reach would eat up attentional resources. They had two reasons in mind why this could be the case:

a) People may consciously draw attention and orient themselves towards the cellphone. Maybe thinking about what they are missing out on while doing the task at hand.

b) People may unconsciously inhibit automatic attention to the cellphone. The idea here is that the cellphone may attract automatic attention, but inhibition processes – which cost attentional resources – damp the orientation towards the desired object. Importantly, the authors argue that people are not aware of these inhibition processes, but they nevertheless can lead to decreased performance in cognitively demanding tasks.

What did they find?

Indeed, having one’s cellphone in sight (desk condition) led to lower cognitive capacity in both tasks (see figure) compared to the condition where the cellphone was in a different room (other room condition). If the cellphone was out of sight, but within immediate reach (bag/pocket condition), the results were more mixed: Here the researchers sometimes found a significant difference to the “other room” condition, but not always.



In order to explore if participants were consciously distracted by the cellphone and thinking about it (explanation a), the researchers asked all participants “While completing today’s tasks, how often were you thinking about your cellphone?” Participants reported that they had not been thinking about their phones at all. Thus, a verbalizable and conscious process harming the performance may not be the key to the finding. The more likely explanation for these effects is that automatic processes (maybe inhibition of automatic attention) are responsible for the detrimental effect of cellphone presence on cognitive capacity.

 Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Cellphone dependence as moderator

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers looked at whether people who reported to be more dependent on their cellphone (“I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cellphone.”) would experience stronger negative effects of having it within sight. Indeed, that is what they found – and this finding bears important practical implications.

Let me break down the findings more concretely:

  • For people who reported a strong dependence, putting the cellphone in the bag or leaving it in another room made a tremendous difference for their cognitive capacity: They performed much better in these two conditions compared to the one where the phone was on the desk.
  • For people who reported a weaker dependence, it made no difference where the phone was. Thus, their performance was not affected by the location of the phone.

Interestingly, the results stayed the same whether the cellphone was just on silent mode or completely turned off.

This is the first study that looked into the effects of mere cellphone presence and additional factors need to be taken into consideration in future research before drawing strong conclusions. However, it nevertheless is good food for thought and makes you reflect on how you may want to set up a good learning environment.

Take home message for students

If you experience a high dependency on your cellphone, you will perform better on high-demanding tasks if you put away your phone so that it is completely out of sight. Quick fixes like putting your phone on silence, turning it completely off, or putting it face-down may not work as long as it is still in sight. Try to do leave the phone in your bag or in a different room. For example, when you are studying in the library it would be most natural to leave your cellphone locked away. To ease this process, you may want to do this as a group. For example, when you go to the library to study together, everyone leaves their phone outside and plan breaks where you go outside to engage with your phone.

Image by Pixabay

 Image by Pixabay

Take home message for teachers

As mentioned in the beginning, this research adds to the discussion whether to allow cellphones in the classroom or not. The authors point out that one key aspect may be that it should feel natural to students to be separated from their phones. Thus, if a there was a general school policy in place that invited students to leave their cellphones in dedicated lockers, it could work.


(1) Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2, 140-154.

Cognitive Load Theory CLT

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory (or CLT) is a theory which aims to understand how the cognitive load produced by learning tasks can impede students’ ability to process new information and to create long-term memories.

Cognitive load is typically increased when unnecessary demands are imposed on a learner, making the task of processing information overly complex. Such demands include the unnecessary distractions of a classroom and inadequate methods used by teachers to educate students about a subject. When cognitive load is managed well, students are able to learn new skills easier than when high cognitive load interferes with the creation of new memories.

By understanding the principles behind cognitive load theory, teachers can optimize the way they present novel ideas to students to make them easier for their audience to understand.

Cognitive load theory was first outlined in 1988 by John Sweller, an educational psychologist at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Sweller built on the working memory model of memory which proposed that long-term memories develop when auditory and visual information is processed (or rehearsed) to a greater degree than other everyday observations (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974). Sweller believed that factors which make learning unnecessarily complex, or distract us from information we are trying to pay attention to, increase a person’s cognitive load as they are processing it. As a result of higher cognitive load, a stimulus is more difficult to pay attention to, rehearse and remember, making learning less effective (Sweller, 1988).

John Sweller and other researchers have identified ways in which cognitive load can be reduced in a learning environment using more effective teaching methods, thus encouraging the formation of new memories.

Types of Cognitive Load

Cognitive load takes one of three forms: it may be intrinsic, extraneous or germane.

  • Intrinsic Cognitive Load
    This type of cognitive load refers the demand made of a learner by the intrinsic quality of information being learnt. The load exerted on a learner depends on the complexity of the task set or concept being presented, and a learner’s ability to understand the new information.

    The intrinsic nature of such a cognitive load makes it difficult to eliminate: you will always find a difficult, new activity (e.g. solving a complex equation) more challenging than a simple task (e.g. adding two small numbers together).

    However, the cognitive load resulting from a complex task can be reduced by breaking it down into smaller, simpler steps for a learner to complete individually.

    You are probably familiar with task of assembling flat-pack furniture, for instance. Rather than assembly instructions containing just one large diagram showing how each piece fits together, the manufacturers simplify the process, splitting it into short step-by-step tasks. In doing so, they ensure that a customer needs only grasp these easy-to-understand tasks (e.g. screwing a screw) as opposed to visualizing the entire process of assembling a desk, in order to set it up. They are also able to focus only on the 2-3 parts that they need to use in any one step, rather than a whole box of wooden parts, nails, and other fixings.

  • Extraneous Cognitive Load
    Extraneous cognitive load is produced by the demands imposed on learners by the teacher, or the instructions that they are asked to follow. This type of cognitive load is extraneous to the learning task, and is increased by ineffective teaching methods, which unintentionally misdirect students with distracting information or make a task more complex than it needs to be.

    Effective presentation methods can help reduce the extraneous cognitive load imposed on a learner, instead freeing them to rehearse and remember a lesson.

    For example, some types of information are better understand when illustrated in a diagram, as opposed to being written. The rotation of the moon as it orbits the earth, for instance, is easier to comprehend when demonstrated visually, using a model of the solar system or a video, rather than in a written form without diagrams. The visual presentation of concepts such as the solar system mean that a learner does not have to keep hold of ideas explained early on in a paragraph of text in order to understand the final sentence. Instead, they can be referenced simply by looking at an illustration.

  • Germane Cognitive Load
    This third type of cognitive load is produced by the construction of schemas and is considered to be desirable, as it assists in learning new skills and other information.

    A memory schema is a conceptualisation of a particular idea or object which tells us what to expect when we encounter it in the future.

    We hold schemas for people, household objects and ‘script’ schemas for routines and events such as our morning routine, as well schemas for particular ‘roles’ that we find people enacting, which tell us what kind of behavior to expect of them.

    The first time we experience something new (e.g. attending a first wedding) can be daunting, as we do not have a schema that tells us what to expect, and so a germane cognitive load is produced as we observe and learn about the experience to help us to anticipate and understand it in the future.


Cognitive load theory can be applied to any instructional learning context: by minimising the extraneous cognitive load imposed on students and avoiding a means-end analysis of a task, which can lead learners to be overwhelmed by the complexity of an idea, teachers can ensure that the presentation of information does not impede learning.

Furthermore, by developing activities which encourage a germane cognitive load, you can better facilitate long-term knowledge and skill acquisition.

The potential applications for cognitive load theory reach far beyond traditional learning situations such as classrooms, lecture rooms and conferences. Whilst teachers can use CLT to help students to learn, you can also apply the theory when giving a speech or presentation. By simplifying the ideas you want to convey, providing individual, easy-to-understand explanations of each issue and removing superfluous details, you can reduce extraneous cognitive load to make your presentation more memorable to listeners.

Let’s take a look at some specific ways in which you can apply cognitive load theory:

Worked Examples

John Sweller (2006) emphasised the use of worked examples to show learners how to carry out new tasks. A worked example is essentially a step-by-step demonstration where a process is reduced to single actions, reducing the intrinsic cognitive load resulting from a complex task.

For example, maths teachers use worked examples to show students how to use long division, which from the outset may appear difficult, but when split into simpler steps, can be understood by most people. Online instructional videos for DIY projects, where a task is broken down into smaller assignments and demonstrated by an expert, are another instance of worked examples.


According to the working memory model, auditory data is processed separately to visual information. A ‘phonological loop’ handles speech and other sounds, whilst a distinct ‘visuo-spatial sketchpad’ processes text and other visual stimuli (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974). When a learner is presented with two simultaneous instances of the same type of stimulus, extraneous cognitive load is increased and as the two compete for attention.

For example, when you hear two people trying to explain something to you at the same time, the increased cognitive load prevents you from focussing on both explanations and you might only pick up on fragments of what each person is saying.

Similarly, when a diagram printed in a book is labeled with different numbers, and each number is explained in paragraphs printed on the opposite page, the need to cross-reference each number across two different visual stimuli increases the cognitive load experienced by a learner and hinders their effort to understand the information.

Split-Attention Effect

Cognitive load theory suggests that educators remove competing stimuli in order to avoid the split-attention effect, and should allow students to focus on a single visual source of information at any given time. Similarly, when listening to a lecture or watching an instructional video, the experience should not be interrupted with competing explanations of an idea.

Paul Chandler and John Sweller demonstrated this in a study which concluded that the learning experience could be improved when competing stimuli were merged into one source of information.

By embedding a written explanation of a diagram within the illustration itself, the researchers found that learners could understand the information presented to them better than if the diagram and explanation were provided separately (Chandler and Sweller, 1992).

Similarly, in a presentation to show students the locations of different countries on a world map, a teacher might employ these findings by writing the names of the respective countries on the map rather than asking students to refer to a separate key listing the countries by number.

However, as Baddeley and Hitch’s theory infers that audio and visual stimuli are processed separately, they can be combined in order to provide an enhance learning experience.

A visual demonstration of a task presented in a video can therefore be improved with an audio narration that explains each step, without overloading viewers with competing stimuli.


The split-attention effect can also affect an audience when distractions are present in the learning environment.

Just as the light from an audience member’s phone can lead your attention away from the screen at a cinema, we are all prone to losing focus in a learning environment when distractions are present.

By identifying and removing stimuli which may distract an audience, educators can reduce the additional extraneous cognitive load imposed them. When giving a presentation, a lecturer might ensure that they do not stand next to distracting signs or posters. A co-operative, quiet audience can also reduce cognitive load and help to avoid the irrelevant speech effect, whereby distracting background sounds have been found to impede the formation of new memories (Jones and Macken, 1993).


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