What can help you resist? Mindfulness!

So…. the impulse to look at an incoming text in class – and worse, respond – seems hard to resist. As Miller and Brannon (2017) note, the research suggests that students do recognize that using their mobile phone in class (or, horrifyingly, while driving) is inappropriate and will disrupt learning (and in the case of DWT, be incredibly dangerous to yourself and to other drivers). And yet their research indicated that 90% of their participants admitted sending texts in class at least sometimes (and 40% sent texts in class always or almost always)!

Froese, Carpenter, Inman, Schooley, Barnes, Brecht and Chacon (2012) surveyed 693 students at seven US colleges and universities and found that 90% were in the combined category of moderate to avid users, with 53% describing themselves as “avid users”, sending 76 to more than 100 texts a day. Over 90% carry their phones to class most or all of the time. Their survey participants admitted they texted in class, while also agreeing that they would score lower on a test if they had texted while learning the material. The average expected score in the not-texting-while-learning condition was a quite confident 8.9 of 10 points, while the average expected score in the texting-while-learning condition was 6. Translating that to an exam, this would be the difference between an A and a C letter grade. Froese et al. (2012) then conducted an experiment in which participants engaged in conversational texting during one pre-recorded powerpoint lecture, and listened to the other lecture without texting. The results were that the participants’ prediction that they would lose 33% on the text was confirmed – students did lose 27% on the test in the texting while learning condition. The researchers concluded that students are aware that texting in class will disrupt their learning.

So it isn’t a matter of ignorance of the consequences. They know, but they just can’t seem to resist the siren allure of the cell. The immediate and strong reward seems too powerful for students to inhibit. Operant conditioning theory would definitely explain how the immediate and powerful social rewards of a received text work to condition us to automatically respond. Attention and consciousness theory in cognitive psychology would explain that the habit of responding to a text has become automatic, and automatic habits can “run”, like programs, without the oversight of a person’s conscious intention to pay attention to the lecture instead. Social psychology would add that important social relationships are maintained and potentially strengthened by the frequent text exchange, fulfilling our need to belong, and evolutionary psychology would add that as social animals, maintaining social connections is adaptive. A longitudinal Swedish research study in developmental psychology suggested that texting frequency is age-related, and reaches its peak in young adulthood, and several studies support the finding of high rates in this age group in class or studying (and in driving). Add to that research in neuroscience (physiological psychology) that impulse control is more difficult for those under 25, as the frontal lobe is not fully “wired”, and we have some understanding why it is so difficult for students to stop their impulse to text any where any time.

Lots of researchers have been wondering what could help students resist. One interesting research study is by Miller and Brannon (2017). If you want to look it up, the reference is

Miller, M. M., & Brannon, L. A. (2017). Testing mindfulness-based acceptance against implementation intentions to discourage counterintentional cell phone use. Mindfulness, 8, 1212–1224. doi: 10.1007/s12671-017-0694-1

The title says it – the word “counterintentional” indicates that the researchers recognize students don’t intend to use their phone in class. But, as they point out, they “respond to calls or text messages in these situations in order to reap short-term rewards or eliminate uncomfortable thoughts or feelings” (p. 1212). Several previous studies have looked at using mindfulness training to help students learn to be aware of the impulse and automatic response. “Controlled process” in attention are those behaviours that are consciously directed, and in controlled process we are able to oversee and change automatic behaviour.  Mindfulness training helps with metacognition, and the hope is that it can help this, and other, impulsive and maladaptive behaviour.

In their research study, Miller and Bannon (2017) tested the hypothesis that brief mindfulness-based interventions or implementation intention planning could help student resist cell phone use (compared to two control conditions in which they were simply informed about the negative consequences of cell phone use in these situations). They designed an experiment in which 181 participants were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions in psychology classes.  Both interventions, mindfulness based interventions and  “implementation intention planning” (that is, making specific clear plans to implement to attain a goal) have been used in cognitive-behavioural programs to help people “resist temptations and deal with distracting thoughts or urges” (p.1212). Their hypothesis was that either brief training sessions would be more successful than the control groups at resisting counterintentional urges to answer texts in class.

The results of their experiment was that participants who received mindfulness training were significantly less likely than the control group to respond to a text during class. Texting in class did not significantly differ between the implementation intention condition and the control group, although the participants thought this intervention was more helpful than mindfulness training.

A simple message about the possible negative consequences is not enough. Most students know this already. What is needed is to teach students how to deal with the temptation, how to inhibit the impulse to answer.  And their brief mindfulness training worked. At least in this study.

Good to know!