Is Technology Interfering with Our Most Intimate Relationships?

Psychology professor David Sbarra explores what technology addiction is doing to our in-person relationships from an evolutionary perspective.


Editor’s Note: The 2017 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute took place from June 5 – 11 at the Garrison Institute in New York. This year’s program, focused on the theme of “Intersubjectivity and Social Connectivity,” brought together scientists, clinical researchers, contemplative practitioners, scholars, and teachers from a variety of disciplines to explore scientific, humanistic, and first-person contemplative perspectives on interrelational human dynamics, including how we relate to ourselves and others, and to community and strangers.

In an effort to share some of the insights from this year’s Summer Research Institute, the Mind and Life Institute and the Garrison Institute teamed up to produce an online series based on some of the presentations.

One of the most compelling arguments for why social relationships are so meaningful and important to human beings is the “social brain hypothesis,” which proposes that the reason primates evolved such large brains is so that they could manage their complex social systems. Specifically, the neocortex part of the human brain allows humans to think about cooperating with other people and understand other people’s intentions and actions. In no small part, according to the social brain hypothesis, our survival and dominance as a species is due to our ability to create and maintain high-quality relationships.

The social brain hypothesis provided the evolutionary backdrop of a recent presentation about technology and relationships by David Sbarra at the 2017 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute at the Garrison Institute entitled “Relationships, Health, and Technology: Toward an Evolutionary Mismatch?” During his presentation, Sbarra, who is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, critically evaluated the rise of modern technology by asking if our mobile devices, in particular, might be interfering with our relationships from an evolutionary perspective.

To answer this question Sbarra has been tracking and evaluating the research about “technoference,” which is when technology use distracts people from their everyday relationships. Think of the last time you had a conversation interrupted because someone decided to respond to a text message in the middle of it. One measure of high-quality relationships that deceases with high levels of technoference is called “perceived partner responsiveness.”

“Perceived partner responsiveness is a way of describing how intimacy unfolds in relationships,” Sbarra says. “It lets you know whether one person feels understood, validated, and cared for by his or her partner. So the idea is that the rise of technology addiction in our everyday relationships is interfering with the quality of the present-moment interactions between people.”

An analogy Sbarra uses when talking about technology, relationships, and evolution is the ubiquitous role of sugar in the modern food environment. Sweetness signals the availability of calories and energy; necessarily, when calorically-rich foods were scarce, consuming sweet foods provided a survival advance. Now, the modern food environment is replete with sugar, and we need to take steps to avoid too much in our day-to-day diets. As a consequence, we created a massive sugar addiction problem, which contributed to the obesity crisis that we’re dealing with today. In the same way that too much sugar is an evolutionary mismatch for the way our bodies were designed to eat and process calories, Sbarra says, technology can interfere with how we evolved to be in relationships.

“Say you’re sitting at home with a spouse or partner and you guys are talking about something while the kids are running around. All of a sudden your phone goes off and one person stops talking to start scrolling through their Instagram feed,” Sbarra says. “Think about that process unfolding writ large. We need to be intentional about the way we approach the potential problems that come from that.”

It’s worth mentioning that the phone doesn’t even need to go off to be a distraction. During his presentation, Sbarra cited studies that show that the mere presence of a cell phone actually diminishes the quality of social interaction. In one experiment, researchers put partners in conversation about something they considered either casual or important. During some of these conversations, the researchers put a cell phone next to people as they were talking. Across the board, when people were talking about something important and a cell phone was simply present, partners reported the relationship quality as diminished, that they trusted the person less, and that the person had less empathy for them.

In other words, for the same reasons that we’re beginning to understand why social media interactions can leave us yearning for deeper connections, technology addiction—and even its mere presence—is also undermining our more fulfilling in-person social relationships. These are two closely related, but separate points. As journalist Nicholas Carr describes in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, distraction isn’t just lowering the quality of our online interactions; we carry our distracted state into our lives outside of the Internet.

Whether we’re between tabs while scrolling through our Facebook feed or texting during dinner with a loved one, it’s difficult to maintain relationships when we are constantly multitasking. Importantly, the solutions that Sbarra argues for are not to eliminate technology, but to act with intentionality about its role in our lives and to use technology as a means of deepening our in-person relationships.

Sam Mowe is the editor of the Garrison Institute’s blog.

Photographs courtesy of Eric Pickersgill, from his Removed series. Removed is a series of large format black and white photographs that are of individuals performing as if they are using their devices although their phones and tablets have been physically removed from their hands moments prior to the exposure.

Eric Pickersgill is represented by Rick Wester Fine Art, New York.

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