Imagine you are visiting a new city and get lost on your way to that famous must-see museum. In times of yore – actually just about 10 years ago – you might have had to consult a friendly local to direct you. Today, with all the friendly locals still very much around you on the street, you might find yourself reaching for the powerful fountain of information in your pocket – your smartphone. Directions to the museum, recommendations for the best places to have lunch and much more are literally at your fingertips, anytime and anywhere you go.
Such convenient access to information is no doubt useful. Our map apps might well be more reliable (and more likely to be in our native language) than the confusing directions of a stranger. And we run zero risk of getting into an unpleasant interpersonal interaction. But could there be costs to this technological convenience?
Contrary to people’s expectations, casual social interactions even with strangers can be surprisingly enjoyable, and a powerful tool in building a sense of connection, community and belonging. Economists sometimes refer to these impalpable links that hold society together as “social capital.” But as intangible as they may be, these bonds between members of a society have very real consequences. When trust between people in a country goes up, for example, so does economic growth. At the individual level, people who trust others more also tend to have better health and higher well-being.
Could our increasing reliance on information from devices, rather than from other people, be costing us opportunities to build social capital? To examine this question, my collaborator Jason Proulx and I looked at the relationship between how frequently people used their phones to obtain information and how much they trusted strangers.
We looked at data from the World Values Survey – a large nationally representative U.S. poll. Respondents reported how frequently they obtained information from various sources, including TV, radio, the internet, other people and their mobile phones. We found that the more often Americans used their phones to obtain information, the less they trusted strangers. They also reported feeling less trust in their neighbors, people from other religions, and people of other nationalities. Importantly, using phones for information had no bearing on how much people trusted their friends and family.
Frankly, these results surprised us. We were skeptical, and did everything we could think of to identify other, nonphone reasons that might be causing the results we got. We adjusted for a wide range of demographic variables, like age, sex, income, education, employment status and race. We explored whether where people lived might be involved: Maybe people in rural regions used phones less due to poorer coverage, or trusted people more than people in urban regions – or both.
But even when we accounted for all of these differences, people who used their phones to get information trusted strangers less.
As information technology continues to make our lives easier, our findings highlight the possible social costs of constant information access: By turning to convenient electronic devices, people may be forgoing opportunities to foster trust – a finding that seems particularly poignant in the present political climate.