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Why you can’t stop checking your phone

To fight texting and driving means confronting a bigger problem, say experts: our technology is reprogramming us.

Drive for long enough in America, and you’re bound to see someone texting behind the wheel. Maybe it’ll be the guy ahead of you, his head bobbing up and down as he tries to balance his attention between his screen and his windshield. Or maybe it’ll be the woman weaving into your lane, thumbing at her phone while she holds it above the dashboard. Maybe it’ll be you.

A recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showed that drivers who are texting are twice as likely to crash, or almost crash, as those who are focused on the road. It’s a disturbingly common habit: According to a survey analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-third of American adults had e-mailed or texted on their phones while driving at least once during the previous month. And while most get away with it unscathed, many do not. The National Safety Council estimates that 213,000 car crashes in the United States in 2011 involved drivers who were texting, up from 160,000 the year before.


Concerned Americans have taken up the fight against this “national epidemic,” as US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called it: Forty-one states, including Massachusetts, have outlawed texting while driving, and police are experimenting with increasingly aggressive enforcement strategies. Meanwhile, advocacy groups are taking a page from past public-safety successes, like the push to get people to wear seat belts and the anti-drunk-driving movement. AT&T has released an array of ads based around the slogan “It can wait,” and commissioned a documentary film by Werner Herzog, in which people who have lost loved ones to texting-anddriving accidents join those who have caused such crashes in begging viewers to abstain.

But there’s a problem with treating the texting and driving threat as simply a matter of public awareness: Most people already know they shouldn’t do it. One federal survey showed that 94 percent of Americans think it should be illegal to text while driving. Yet they persist. Among teens, who are twice as likely as adults to have extended text conversations while driving, the problem is particularly worrisome. According to one analysis, a state antitexting law barely reduces the likelihood a teenager will text and drive.


It seems clear something powerful is at work, overriding people’s knowledge that what they’re doing behind the wheel is dangerous. To figure out what that something might be, psychology and communications researchers around the world have started studying what exactly is happening in our heads when we reach for a phone in the car. What their research so far suggests is that texting and driving is unlike any public safety issue we’ve dealt with before. It’s not like the judgment error of drinking too much and deciding to drive home anyway; it’s not like neglecting to put on your seat belt. That’s because at the center of the problem, the experts say, is an entirely new kind of object—the modern smartphone—that has become embedded in our consciousness in a way that’s changing our behavior on a massive scale.

In this light, the deadly phenomenon of texting and driving is just one manifestation of a broader affliction facing society: Our phones have effectively programmed us with new habits, including a powerful urge to pull them out when we’re not supposed to. That urge—to check our e-mail, to glance at Facebook, to see who just texted us—can be as intense when we’re standing in line or at dinner with our families as it is when we’re driving a car. But it’s only in a car that resisting it becomes a matter of life and death. In order to fight the problem, we need to understand how that urge works—and acknowledge that merely telling people texting and driving is dangerous, and punishing them for doing it, might not be enough.


“You have to start with the question of why it happens,” said Scott Campbell, a communications professor at the University of Michigan who studies compulsive cellphone use. “Once you have a grasp on why it happens, then you can start to attack the actual mechanisms that lead to the behavior. Without that, you’re just experimenting.”


Driving is hard . A lot can go wrong as you operate a two-ton vehicle in a parking lot, never mind at highway speed. Not surprisingly, paying attention to a small computer at the same time makes it much more likely you’ll mess up. And while sending or reading a text message might only take a few seconds, that can be an eternity when you consider how little time it takes for a child to run into the street or for traffic to suddenly slow in front of you. In a car, getting distracted even briefly can be catastrophic: In 2011, official reports listed 387,000 people injured and 3,331 people killed as a result of distracted driving.

The remedy seems simple: Drivers should just decide to ignore their phones in the car. But as cellphone researchers look more deeply into the practice, they are concluding that decision-making may only be part of the story. For many people, they say, using a smartphone may be less a decision than a habit—a move they make without initially thinking about what they are doing or why.


Habits form when we do something so often that it becomes automatic, sometimes even compulsive or involuntary. Researchers who study the psychology of habit formation are finding that for many people, cellphone use fits this category perfectly. In a recent paper, researchers reported the results of an experiment in which 136 test subjects were given smartphones equipped with software that kept track of their usage for six weeks. The subjects pulled out their devices for very brief periods up to 60 times per day, according to lead author Antti Oulasvirta, a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, and tended to interact with them in ways that met several definitions of habitual behavior. In diary entries, subjects indicated they were moved to pull up certain applications under the same circumstances over and over: Those who repeatedly checked their e-mail or looked at the news, for instance, said they consistently did so when they got bored.

People whose cellphone use is driven by such automated habits are more likely to text and drive, according to a paper published earlier this year by Scott Campbell and his student Joseph Bayer. In the paper, Campbell and Bayer asked 441 college students a series of questions—adapted from a more general questionnaire used by psychologists to assess habit formation—aimed at determining the extent to which their phone use was habitual. Those who scored high on the scale tended to be the same people who admitted to texting while driving on a regular basis.


The tricky thing about fighting habitual behavior is that the brain’s ability to form habits is actually one of its strengths. A habit is a powerful shortcut that helps us stay more productive: If we learn to react automatically to things in our environment, we preserve mental energy for the harder decisions. You don’t want to have to think about it every time you turn out the lights and lock the front door in the morning.

Phones, however, may hold a power over our habitual behavior that we haven’t fully appreciated yet. Psychologists believe habits tend to revolve around triggers: Trundling down the stairwell of a T station, we pull out our Charlie Cards; settling into our desks at work, we automatically check for messages. But Campbell and Bayer, as well as other researchers who have looked closely at the way we use our mobile phones, say the habits people form around the “everything boxes” in our pockets are fundamentally different: Because we use them in so many different situations, and to accomplish so many different tasks, we develop a vast range of triggers and cues associated with pulling them out and looking at them.

These triggers can be quite basic—the phone ringing or buzzing with a message—and they can come from inside as well as out. One’s desire to reach for the phone might be rooted in complex emotions like loneliness and curiosity, for instance. Humans crave resolution, and smartphones offer it: It’s hard to resist seeing whether a crush has texted back, or a co-worker has sent a reply to a crucial e-mail. By connecting us to everybody we know, all the time, smartphones present a novel way to scratch all kinds of itches.

At the heart of the texting and driving problem, according to researchers, is that people who habitually use their cellphones in daily life have a hard time stopping themselves from reacting to that multitude of triggers when they’re behind the wheel. “The idea that you can just turn off all those associations when you get into the car—I just don’t think it’s realistic,” said Stephen O’Connor, a psychologist at Western Kentucky University who recently coauthored a paper linking compulsive cellphone use to a heightened rate of crashes.

Worse yet, driving itself may exacerbate the problem. According to Paul Atchley, a psychologist at the University of Kansas who studies texting and driving, drivers are at a disadvantage when it comes to resisting temptation, because their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for inhibition, is engaged by the task of driving. “The part of your brain that would say, ‘Don’t do this, this is bad for you,’ is occupied,” he said.


If smartphone use has become more automatic than conscious for a broad swath of the population, it suggests a complete solution to the problem will require more than laws and ad campaigns: What people who text and drive must do is change their behavior in a way that’s akin to kicking a compulsion. One approach to these kinds of compulsive behaviors is to simply remove the temptation, the way a smoker might throw away his lighter and avoid hanging out with other smokers. An idea that’s been floated recently is to have phones automatically shut off when they detect they’re being used in a moving car—in fact, one can already download apps that do this. But until it becomes possible to teach a phone to distinguish between a driver and a passenger, such solutions are unlikely to gain traction.

Atchley argues for a campaign inspired by the “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” approach to reducing drunken driving. “If it’s a social problem, the solution has to be a social solution,” Atchley said.

That could include abstaining from contacting people we suspect are driving (though, obviously, much of the time we have no idea), or getting passengers to crack down on drivers. But it could also involve drawing lines about phone use in other contexts as well, essentially training ourselves to distinguish between situations where it is and isn’t OK. “If we think it’s socially unacceptable to have one person in a group constantly playing with their phone,” said Atchley, “it’s our responsibility as a friend to say, ‘Can you put the phone down and just hang out with us?’”

Another idea suggested by the new research is that we might fight habit with habit. The goal would be to develop a new trigger for turning the phone off, or even stashing it in the trunk, before getting into the driver’s seat.

Ultimately, the researchers agree, figuring out how to stop grabbing for our phones will depend on recognizing that we’re relating to this new technology with some very ancient instincts—and that we’ll need to take those into account, not just fight them. “It is a new kind of problem,” said Campbell, “and in a way it’s the same old problem we’ve always faced as human beings: that underlying need to connect, to overcome those boundaries between self and other. What I’d call the human condition.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail