Pregnant woman on phoneMany, many years of research indicates humans work hard “to avoid expending effort when problem-solving,” according to Nathaniel Barr, a University of Waterloo researcher in Ontario, Canada. The findings of a recent study he and colleagues conducted indicate a growing reliance on smartphones to solve problems rather than thinking them through on brain power alone, a situation described as “cognitive miserliness.” The research team is concerned that when smartphones are used to solve ordinary human problems, the brain becomes lazy. The researchers fear underutilizing one’s brain power today will have adverse consequences on brain function later.

The Barr study involved 660 study participants who used brain power to complete assessments of three measures:

  • Intuitive or analytical style of cognitive thinking
  • Verbal skills
  • Number skills

Intuitive thinkers are more likely to make decisions based on gut instinct whereas analytical thinkers tend to second-guess themselves and rely on logic rather than instinct. Analytical thinkers tend to be more intelligent than intuitive thinkers, according to the research team.

After assessment of cognitive and mental skills, the research team evaluated each study participant’s smartphone use. They found:

  • Intuitive thinkers frequently rely on their phone’s search feature rather than on their own brain power. “They may look up information that they actually know or could easily learn but are unwilling to make the effort to actually think about it,” according to Gordon Pennycook, a PhD candidate at Waterloo who was co-lead author of the study.
  • In contrast, study participants who demonstrated greater willingness to think in analytical ways and who demonstrated stronger cognitive skills spend less time with their smartphones’ search feature.

The Barr study does not prove that heavy smartphone use lowers intelligence but “our research provides support for an association between heavy smartphone use and lowered intelligence,” according to Pennycook.

The amount of time a study participant spent using their smartphone for entertainment or social media interaction did not affect cognitive thinking in either the intuitive or the analytical groups. The only smartphone feature linked to mental laziness was the phone’s search engine function; the researchers describe this smartphone activity as offloading one’s thinking to the device.

Barr said, “Our reliance on smartphones and other devices will likely only continue to rise,” a prediction that makes it all the more important to understand how human psychology is affected by them “before these technologies are so fully ingrained that it’s hard to recall what life was like without them.”


  1. Barr, Nathaniel, Gordon Pennycook, Jennifer A. Stolz, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang. "The brain in your pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to supplant thinking." Computers in Human Behavior July 2015: 473-80. ScienceDirect / Elsevier BV. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.
  2. "Measuring America: Computer & Internet Trends in America." United States Census Bureau. US Department of Commerce, 3 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.


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