Why your brain makes you show off your phone

Anyone who commutes long distance to work via train will have noticed something very distinct happening in recent years. Books, notebooks and newspapers have retreated from those desks, to be replaced by an array of digital devices. Some people have their attention deep in an ebook, while others focus on their phones. Tablet users pinch and swipe away their journey, but they all do it with something of a conspicuous air. Even short train trips or bus rides present you with the site of a forest of phones in use.

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Some of that is in the design. The latest smartphones have so much more eye appeal than the standard, solid, boxy PC laptops that many commuters worked upon in years past. And many people choose to personalise their devices with colourful and eye-catching cases. There’s more to it than that, though.

At the very least, there's a little of the power display to it: "Look at this phone - it's a bigger/newer/smaller/faster/more minimal phone than yours - thus ownership of it grants me superior status." Nobody actually thinks that phrase, but that's what's going on somewhere in their subconscious. Like so many chunks of psychology at work down at that level, the mating urge is in there somewhere. In fact, research done over a decade ago showed that men use phones as mating lures - and that will only have grown as the phone became the smartphone.

All of a sudden, the simple act of placing your phone on a table becomes a charged one. Placing phones on a meeting tablet or the train table is not just placing it somewhere handy, it’s about territory marking, little shows of dominance, and not-so-subtle signs of affluence and thus sexual suitability. Those sidelong glances at someone else’s tech seem more charged with assessment and competition than perhaps we thought… A new world of office anthropology opens up before us: what does it signal when someone brings a laptop instead of a phone? Or how about a tablet?

Once your eyes are opened to this, a whole new world of subtle messages opens up to you. What signals is the friend who always fiddles with their phone when you meet sending? Does the ritual of placing your phones in a pile when out with friends have a sexual undercurrent you’d never considered before? Who knew that putting your phone on a table was so complicated?

Teenagers often use their phones as tools of social bonding, with everyone in the same social group sharing the same brand - and also as a territory marker. Psychologists suggest that the reason they often use their phones to play music publically is as a space-claiming marker of territory. Controlling the music played makes the area affected by it “theirs”. The businessman carving out desk territory with his phone is displaying the same instincts, only with a little more regard for others.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that we project so much onto our phones. They are the devices we have with us almost constantly, and for those of us who mediate the majority of our communication through them, they are almost extensions of ourselves. They are intimate devices, because they hold our secrets, and they connect us to those we hold dear. Some people grow so attached to their phones emotionally that they’re reluctant to let go of them after they acquire a new one.

This same connection shapes a desire in the more introverted to hide away their phones - which is often countered by the addictive nature of the communication coming through the device. In the pocket, in the hand, on the table, in the hand, in the pocket… For others it's such an extension of their sense of self that they want it up on display in search of validation. Some people “wear” their devices like they would branded clothes, trying to make a statement.

There’s a tribalism at work here, certainly. Some people root their self-identity in their brand choice, and phones are a nice, expensive visible way of doing that. Placing two devices from the same manufacturer on a table is a shortcut to a feeling of kinship or connection in the often impersonal world of business or travel. That tribal choice is more complicated than we know, though, and while we might be consciously convinced that we made the best choice, we could be deluding ourselves for the sake of a cerebral easy life.

There are several underlying psychological issues here. We have a preference for sticking with the functionality we know, because learning new systems is energy-intensive. Our naturally energy conservative brains encourage us to be cognitively lazy, unless we have a strong desire to fight against that. Switching to a different phone brand or operating system takes effort, and even if that would lead to an improved experience or better productivity, our brains resist the move to save energy. Our brains trick us into not challenging our own perceptions, and encourage us to be passionate about the choices we’ve made. Such loyalty to an existing system is simply rationalisation and justification of that laziness, without admitting its true nature. We have an in-built preference for comfort, and a system you know is inherently comfortable.

Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and driving yourself to learn new processes can be very healthy, as long as you recognise your instinctive laziness for what it is, and pass through it. But it’s entertaining to think that some of those public displays of device use by business people busy trying to project their importance, rather than getting on with useful and fulfilling work, are actually manifestations of laziness and lack of mental self-discipline…

There’s also the fact that many of these devices are quite significant purchases. A laptop isn’t something you buy on a regular basis, and many people are still on their very first tablet. They’ve invested a lot of money in that device, and thinking that you made a bad choice would be a very uncomfortable - and unpleasant - experience. We don’t like uncomfortable and unpleasant experiences.

This phenomenon is well explained by the You Are Not So Smart blog:

It works like this: You have several options, like say for a new television. Before you make a choice you tend to compare and contrast all the different qualities of all the televisions on the market.
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You eventually settle on one option, and after you make your decision you then look back and rationalize your actions by believing your television was the best of all the televisions you could have picked.

Once you spend a bunch of money on something, you want to like it. Again, your brain is conspiring against you to keep you stuck in a comfortable rut, rather than challenging your existing brand choice.

One of the core concepts behind designing your day is the idea that you should become aware of - and challenge - situations where you’re just responding to other stimulus, and that includes the seductive messages of laziness and acceptance from your subconscious. Those everyday displays of technology affiliation aren’t smart - they’re our animal instincts at work. If you really love your device, and it truly boosts your productivity, the most mindful way to show it off is to use that time well, rather than eyeing up what tech your neighbours are carrying…

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