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editorial | mobile phone use

Putting the ‘cell’ in ‘selfish’

AS YOU’RE walking along the sidewalk, you see a disabled man, professionally dressed but with his leg in a brace, walking with a limp in the opposite direction. He’s about 20 feet in front of you when he drops the magazines he’s carrying. Do you pause to lend a hand? Or do you deliberately walk around him, leaving him to manage on his own? Alas, the answer depends heavily on whether you’re on the phone.

In a recent paper in the scholarly journal Psychological Reports, Stephen Reysen and Curtis Puryear of Texas A&M University concluded, from a study conducted in Boston, that people talking on cellphones were far less likely to stop and help. Only 9 percent of cellphone talkers offered assistance; among passersby not using cellphones, 72 percent offered help.

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Never mind the excuses: Reysen points out that the experiment was designed so that it was possible to help without interrupting a conversation — someone on a cellphone could keep talking while handing the dropped magazines back to their owner. And since the only way to avoid helping was to consciously change direction and swerve past the person in need, the problem wasn’t that people simply didn’t notice the individual in distress.

There’s other research linking cellphone use with selfish behavior. A 2012 study at the University of Maryland found that for a short while even after using their cellphones, people were less willing to engage in “prosocial” behavior such as volunteer activities. Maybe there should be an app for empathy. Connecting with people at a distance shouldn’t mean ignoring those all around us.

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