Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

A “study” conducted for computing firm Hewlett Packard warned of a rise in “infomania“, with people becoming addicted to email and text messages and this impacting (what else?) their IQ. This came in 2006, but I just stumbled upon it today and became predicably irate at yet another example of terrible science reporting.

The study, carried out at the Institute of Psychiatry, found excessive use of technology reduced workers’ intelligence.

Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ – more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana, said researchers.

More than half of the 1,100 respondents said they always responded to an email “immediately” or as soon as possible, with 21% admitting they would interrupt a meeting to do so.

The University of London psychologist who carried out the study, Dr Glenn Wilson, told the Daily Mail that unchecked infomania could reduce workers’ mental sharpness.

Those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night’s sleep, he said.

::Sigh:: Et tu, BBC?

(continued below the fold…..)

This news report is quite misleading in that it presents the results in a “technology is making you dumber” kind of way, instead of “repeated distractions and interruption break one’s concentration rendering a worker less effective.” It also implies that this lowered IQ is permanent, that somehow this behavior actually impacts a person’s global intelligence. Obviously, this isn’t true. The tests were conducted by Dr Glenn Wilson, Reader in Personality at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London. Dr. Wilson is an adjunct professor at the Univ. of Nevada, Reno and his publications seem to be limited to popular psychology books on dubious topics.

The data may be valuable in trying to maximize productivity and reduce distractions which impair the ability to focus on the task at hand, but the study’s methods and design have not been published anywhere. Add to this that it was privately commissioned by HP, well, taking the results with a grain of salt might be even too generous. Mark Liberman (of UPenn) came to the same critical conclusions and engaged in correspondence with Dr. Wilson, who was surprisingly frazzled by the media’s hype of the story (response below).

This “infomania study” has been the bane of my life. I was hired by H-P for one day to advise on a PR project and had no anticipation of the extent to which it (and my responsibility for it) would get over-hyped in the media.

There were two parts to their “research” (1) a Gallup-type survey of around 1000 people who admitted mis-using their technology in various ways (e.g. answering e-mails and phone calls while in meetings with other people), and (2) a small in-house experiment with 8 subjects (within-S design) showing that their problem solving ability (on matrices type problems) was seriously impaired by incoming e-mails (flashing on their computer screen) and their own mobile phone ringing intermittently (both of which they were instructed to ignore) by comparison with a quiet control condition. This, as you say, is a temporary distraction effect – not a permanent loss of IQ. The equivalences with smoking pot and losing sleep were made by others, against my counsel, and 8 Ss somehow became “80 clinical trials”.

Since then, I’ve been asked these same questions about 20 times per day and it is driving me bonkers

Mark Liberman rightly notes that Wilson is more a victim in this over-hyped, silly media frenzy and that the really irritating thing is “rotten science journalism.” That a privately-conducted, unpublished survey-based (or low test subject number) study garnered media attention at all is more than disappointing, as it reveals how undiscriminating journalists (even good ones, like at the BBC) can be when the science is “sexy.”

However, another thing that Mark said made me feel hopeful about the place of blogs (in this case science blogs) in journalism:

But there’s one thing that we don’t bark about enough. When a piece of scientific research comes to the attention of the media, those who know it best should make available a simple account of what the research is and what it means (or doesn’t mean). If misinterpretations become rampant — which is just another way of saying, if there’s widespread media interest — then it’s in everyone’s interest for the authors to address the misrepresentations directly. This clarifies things for the more sensible fractions of the public and the media.

Blogs, blogs blogs! Blogs can fill this role nicely and I think that the presence ScienceBlogs and the other excellent science blogs on the web gives laypeople an extra source of information which is often written by experts. The rise of blogs might have another effect, which is striking fear into the heart of mediocre, trigger-happy science journalists to get things right. Cause if they don’t, they’ll have to suffer the humiliation of having their good name torn apart by sharks like us. Hear that BBC????


  1. #1 dan dright
    February 28, 2007

    Indubitably, one can envisage what calumny such findings, gravid with hypocrisy…

    *answers im*

    might arouse in an audience not especially…

    *checks email*

    used to reading science stuff or interpreting data

    *texts friend*

    and wood not get to thu truth reel gud

    *updates feeds*

    bleeber bleeber poopy poopy peeeeeep!

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    February 28, 2007

    Hey Dan, welcome back! I wondered what happened to ya. 🙂

  3. #3 Rafael
    April 27, 2010

    I just saw that research these days and I just found the study methods. If it still bothers you:

    If you read this comment, I’d like to know your opinion. You can e-mail me.

    Thanks in advance.

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