Have you heard of “phubbing”? A portmanteau of the words “phone” and “snubbing”, the word describes something we’ve all been subject to at some point or another – and, if we’re honest, one we’ve all been guilty of as well – that all-too-common experience of being ignored by somebody in favor of their smartphone.
It’s an annoying habit, sure – there was even a national “Stop Phubbing” campaign in Australia against the trend – but is that all it is? Research suggests not: in fact, the phenomenon has been linked to all kinds of adverse outcomes, from lower quality of communication to higher rates of loneliness and depression. When lovers phub, their romantic relationship may suffer; when parents do it, their children’s basic psychological needs can go unmet.
“Ironically, phubbing is meant to connect you, presumably, with someone through social media or texting,” Emma Seppälä, a psychologist at Stanford and Yale universities and author of the Happiness Track, told Time back in 2018. “But it actually can severely disrupt your present-moment, in-person relationships.”
And where in-person relationships are concerned, there’s one very important characteristic to be considered: your social intelligence. But if phubbing can affect the former, does that mean it’s impacting the latter? Is staring at our smartphones really reducing our social intelligence?
And if it is – is there anything we can do about it?
What is social intelligence?
When Columbia University psychologist Edward Thorndike originally proposed the concept of “social intelligence” back in 1920, he gave it a pretty simple definition: “The ability to understand and manage men and women and boys and girls, to act wisely in human relations.”
But what does that mean in practice? Modern social scientists break the concept down into a number of traits: people who are socially intelligent are effective listeners, for example, and good conversationalists. They understand the unwritten rules of different social interactions, and they know how to manage the impression they make on others. They know how to make other people tick – and how to smooth over the disagreements that arise when it happens.
In short, “social intelligence” is everything we associate with that one friend we’re all a bit jealous of. It’s being a people person; it’s tact, or “street smarts”. It’s the ability to be liked, and to fit in. It is, in essence, the opposite of social awkwardness.
And it’s very important. “Social intelligence shows itself abundantly in the nursery, on the playground, in barracks and factories and salesrooms,” Thorndike wrote in his original 1920 article on the concept – but, he noted, “the best mechanic in a factory may fail as a foreman for lack of social intelligence.”
Is phubbing associated with lower social intelligence?
It’s not nice to think of ourselves as socially unintelligent – but equally, it’s hard to square the characteristics of social intelligence with the intrinsic concept of phubbing. After all, “if your… partner is on the phone, that means that they are prioritizing something else over you,” Seppälä pointed out.
And not only does “staring at your phone screen instead of engaging” kind of preclude the whole “good conversationalist” and “effective listener” parts of social intelligence, but it doesn’t do much for your reputation either: “Phone users are generally seen as less polite and attentive – and as poorer conversationalists,” she added.
But somewhat surprisingly, the relationship seems to go deeper than that. One 2021 study – which did indeed find phubbing to be connected to lower social intelligence – noted that this effect was less pronounced when a physical magazine, rather than a smartphone, was used to ignore a conversation partner.
“Reading a magazine was seen positively, while smartphone use was seen negatively,” wrote the researchers. “Being absorbed in reading a magazine was considered more understandable and even was described as admirable, sometimes even if it led to being ignored by the absorbed reader. Absorption in one’s smartphone was never depicted positively and was even described as ‘enraging’.”
The reason? According to the researchers, people just really don’t like smartphones. “Magazines were described as educational, civilizing, and good for developing one’s concentration,” they noted, while “smartphones were thought to destroy one’s ability to concentrate.” One participant even went so far as to say that being phubbed would be more annoying than being "magubbed" – at least, we assume that’s the term for being magazine-snubbed – even if she knew her partner was reading the exact same magazine article on his phone.
For others, though, it was the lack of precisely that knowledge that made being phubbed uncomfortable. “When a person has a course textbook in their hands, he or she clearly is assumed to be studying and not looking at their favorite influencer’s Instagram photos,” the researchers wrote – but if all you see is your conversation partner staring at a screen, how are you to know if you’re being ignored in favor of an important exposé or a moth meme?
“Without understanding the nature and goal of the activity causing one to be ignored, the sense of being ignored remains undefined,” the paper explains. “With a smartphone in hand, one might be studying or looking at Instagram photos.”
The good news: social intelligence can be learned
So, repentant phubbers: is it possible to reclaim our social intelligence and ditch phubbing for good? Happily, the answer seems to be yes on both counts.
“Social intelligence… is mostly learned,” wrote Ronald E. Riggio, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College, back in 2014. “[It] develops from experience with people and learning from success and failures in social settings.”
While there’s some evidence for a biological basis of social intelligence, it’s far from the “born with it” quality that it can sometimes seem. The physiological underpinnings involve things like mirror neurons, for example – the still somewhat-mysterious brain circuitry that allows us to understand and empathize with others. We all have these, and we can all use them – it’s just a matter of learning the right habits.
“Here’s an example of what does work,” wrote Daniel Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis for the Harvard Business Review in 2008. “It turns out that there’s a subset of mirror neurons whose only job is to detect other people’s smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return… Being in a good mood, other research finds, helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively. In other words, laughter is serious business.”
The good news is that, as connected as they are, increasing your social intelligence is likely to reduce your phubbing rates on its own. After all, improving the former involves tactics such as mindfully paying attention to those around you, and practicing active listening – both things which are markedly more difficult if you’re just doomscrolling on Twitter.
“Study social situations. Pay attention to what people are doing well and the mistakes you want to avoid. Afterward, think about what you want to do differently in the next social situation you enter,” advised Amy Morin, Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind and a clinical social worker and psychotherapist.
“Get proactive about improving your skills,” she added. “And remember… you're going to mess up sometimes. Learn from your failures as well as your successes.”
As for phubbing, at least one study suggests that kicking that habit may be pretty easy, actually. It doesn’t even require ditching the smartphone – all you have to do is try to resist the temptation.
“We believe that at least having the mobile phone available improved perceived concentration abilities because the device remained accessible and brought participants psychological comfort,” wrote the study authors.
“In contrast with other work that suggests the mobile phone may have interpersonal consequences for conversation dynamics, our data suggests that there may be perceived intrapersonal benefits for those who at least have the phone in front of them relative to those who do not.”
It may not be easy – but with higher social intelligence having been associated with increased job satisfaction, popularity among peers, and general life satisfaction, it’s a change that might be worth it.
“Social intelligence isn’t easy to master – if it were, there wouldn’t ever be another awkward conversation at a party,” Morin concluded. “However, working toward a strong social intelligence can lead to a richer life – or, at least, an easier time making a few new friends.”