Does email really reduce IQ ?

typing.jpgA widely reported news story suggests that email and phone calls reduce IQ by up to 10 points. At closer examination however, the majority of the headlines do not stand up to scrutiny.

UPDATED: See comments.

Firstly, it is difficult to determine exactly what the findings were, as the report on which the news stories are based seems unavailable, and therefore probably not peer-reviewed.

The original Hewlett-Packard press-release references it as Research completed in March 2005 by TNS. The identity of TNS is not clear, but perhaps it is TNS Market Research, a marketing company.

Certainly, the original press release ends by promoting an HP efficiency product, suggesting this may be part of a wider promotion, and more marketing campaign than serious science.

So, does modern communication really reduce IQ ? From the New Scientist story, it seems that this conclusion was drawn from an experiment where participants were given an IQ test while they received emails and phone calls they were told to ignore. Unsurprisingly, they did better when uninterrupted.

In other words: when distracted, people do worse on IQ tests. Hardly ground-breaking research.

One significant finding would be if the effects were lasting, but the story from The Scotsman quotes the lead researcher as saying “the impairment only lasts for as long as the distraction”.

Furthermore, references to a ‘study of 1,000 adults’ seems to be a simple survey, asking when and how often people check electronic messages.

In light of these findings, the conclusion that there is “a nationwide state of Info-Mania” appears comical, whereas comparisons to a study on the effects of marijuana on young adults does nothing except trivialise important work on the cognitive effect of drugs.

Although this may have been a triumph for the marketing professionals, it has come at the price of misleading many people about the effects of communication technology on the mind and brain.

Nevertheless, the advice that the distracting effects of technology are best tackled by switching off is probably sound. It applies equally well to corporate spin.

21 Comments

  1. Posted April 25, 2005 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Nice one Vaughan, well dissected. More generally this seems to me to be a good example of how the media uses psychology – to dress up something mundane. Terminology like IQ, or techniques like brain scanning, give the appearence of weight, or even reality, to more everyday concepts (such as ‘being distracted’, in this example) and at the same time remove them from the level where people can criticise them with their common sense.

  2. Vaughan
    Posted April 25, 2005 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    There some more discussion over at PsyBlog:

    http://feeds.feedburner.com/PsychologyBlog?m=82

    …with some further comments from me.

  3. Vaughan
    Posted April 25, 2005 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I’ve just spoken to HP’s Kerry Gaffney (as mentioned in the press release) and have been told the details of the study are “not available for public consumption” (although I’m being sent an email of statistics from the survey).
    In other words, it is impossible to tell whether the experimental study was sound; particularly what IQ measure was used and how the phone calls and emails were presented to participants.
    Therefore, it seems the study doesn’t even make the lowest grade of scientific validity as it cannot even be inspected by professionals in the field.
    Unless the experimental details are published, I’m afraid this one is junk science at its worst.

  4. Posted April 25, 2005 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Filtered: Links for April 25, 2005

    Click through for today’s online marketing links.

  5. Posted April 26, 2005 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Really good and interesting analysis. Shows how easily I get taken in by media gumpf and lazy journalism.
    Upon thinking about it, it’s not really lowering your IQ at all is it? You don’t suddenly become less intelligent because you are reading email. It’s just that you are splitting up the amount of processing available to handle each task.

  6. Posted April 26, 2005 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Email interruptions: IQ loss or corporate spin?

    Here’s a second, closer look at the widely reported story that claimed interruptions from email lower IQ. Vaughan of Mind Hacks accuses the original press release and subsequent media coverage of

  7. Posted April 27, 2005 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    It’s fine, you can keep checking your email now..

    Mind Hacks debunks the HP press release that was making the rounds the last couple days. […] Anyone know how they monitor an IQ gain/drop? It’s not like you can hook up the IQ equivalent of a pulse oximeter. Every time I’ve had it tested it’s taken…

  8. Posted April 27, 2005 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Does email really reduce IQ ?

    There’s been a story floating around the net that the effect of answering emails and text messages is more damaging to your IQ than cannabis and it has been reported by everyone including the BBC.

  9. Posted April 27, 2005 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    More Junk Corporate Science

    Looks like the “research” claiming that texting and emailing reduced iq was commissioned by and spun for HP in an attempt to sell stuff. [Phew, I’m relieved – back to my emails now]. Anyone surprised?…

  10. Vaughan
    Posted April 28, 2005 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    As a brief update, I have yet to receive any details of the study from Kerry Gaffney.
    I contacted the psychologist mentioned in the story (Glenn Wilson) for details, but was referred back to HP’s PR department.

  11. Posted April 29, 2005 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    IQ is a theoretical construct. So to suggest something reduces this theoretical construct is already a logical fallacy. I wouldn’t expect mainstream press to understand this.
    That this study is a survey is not an issue. Much psychological research is conducted in survey format, especially that measuring online behaviors. Survey research is certainly the weakest of empirical formats, but there are tens of thousands of published studies in the social sciences utilizing surveys. The use of a survey in and of itself doesn’t negate the study’s findings.
    The facts uncovered in this study are not directly disputed, however. When distracted from a task, people’s ability to perform as well on that task decrease. Well many not familiar with psychological research might say, “Duh,” this is research that is necessary to confirm what people observe in natural environments. This kind of research is often the first step to more robust studies.

  12. Posted May 1, 2005 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    ‘Infomania’ worse than marijuana? Or is scientific poppycock worse than crack?

    Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers, new research has claimed.
    Later study links scientific poppycock to pot smoking researchers….

  13. Posted May 3, 2005 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    Uppdatering om effekten av mejl

    Studien som refererades i New Scientist (se En splittrad arbetssituation gˆr oss ineffektiva och korkade” granskas kritiskt p Mind Hack:…

  14. Posted May 3, 2005 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    Email Hurts IQ More Than Pot

    A study of distraction caused by email in the UK found that people who do frequent email or SMS suffer a 10-point IQ drop—roughly twice the IQ drop caused by Marijuana. You can read about the story here, but please…

  15. Vaughan
    Posted May 3, 2005 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    It is important to note that the findings about ‘IQ’ are not based on a survey.
    The survey is a different part of the study, although this is sometimes difficult to distinguish from the press reports.
    In general however, I agree that useful studies can be done as surveys, providing that the questionnaire fulfils certain psychometric criteria.
    As the research has not been published however, we can’t even assess if this section of the study is robust.

  16. Posted May 4, 2005 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    In other words: when distracted, people do worse on IQ tests. Hardly ground-breaking research.

    Mind Hacks

  17. Posted May 5, 2005 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I agree – clearly email doesn’t make you more stupid. What research has shown though is that the interruptions that emails and phone calls facilitate affect our ability to remember things. The more complex the task we’re doing, the longer it takes our brains to task-switch (from task to email and back to task)and the slower (though not less intelligent) we become at doing things.
    I posted on interruption research a while back if you’re interested.
    Piers

  18. Posted May 11, 2005 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    e-mail and telephone interruptions lowers our IQ

    some recent studies runned in the UK by HP have a surprising result: seems that using the Internet reduces our intelligence:
    Based on a series of tests carried out by the University of London Institute of Psychiatry’s Dr Glenn…

  19. Posted June 13, 2005 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    IQ Loss for email users more than double IQ loss for Potheads

    First it was TV, then marijuana, now email is the thing sucking our brains. The Guardian reports that email, with it’s "addictive, drug-like grip" will drop 10 points from your IQ on average, more than twice the 4 point loss caused …

  20. Posted July 15, 2005 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Why it’s time to slow down

    Author Barry Schwartz and journalist Carlos Honoré told technology conference-goers in the UK that “they should unplug and slow down in a world that was stuck in fast-forward.” Technology was supposed to make us more efficient, [Honoré] e…

  21. Posted July 15, 2005 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Why it’s time to slow down

    Author Barry Schwartz and journalist Carlos Honoré told technology conference-goers in the UK that “they should unplug and slow down in a world that was stuck in fast-forward.” Technology was supposed to make us more efficient, [Honoré] e…


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