Digital platforms influencing thinking patterns

The use of digital media may be affecting how people perceive situations, causing them to focus on specific details rather than overall abstract thinking.

In a study performed by games designer Tiltfactor Lab, digital platforms were pitted against non-digital to investigate their effects on participants’ ‘construal levels’ – the innate relationship between abstract and concrete thinking in relation to individual interpretation of a scenario.

The research involved more than 300 participants between the ages of 20 and 24 and was published in the proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery’s CHI ’16 conference.

The results suggested that digital media was resulting in more concrete thinking, whereas non-digital media led to more abstract, overall thought patterns.

One test involved reading a short story either in print-out or digital PDF form followed by a short comprehensive paper-and-pencil test. Abstract questions led to more correct answers in the non-digital group than digital (66% versus 48% respectively). ‘Concrete’ questions returned the opposite result, with members of the digital group scoring better (73% versus 58% respectively).

A second test, involving questions based on information presented in a table regarding four fictitious Japanese car brands, returned a higher proportion of correct answers from the non-digital group of 66%, compared to 43% from the digital group.

Investigators also reported an improvement in correct answers for the digital group following an abstract-thinking priming activity, increasing correct answers from 30% to 48% in the Japanese car model test.

“Compared to the widespread acceptance of digital devices, as evidenced by millions of apps, ubiquitous smartphones, and the distribution of iPads in schools, surprisingly few studies exist about how digital tools affect our understanding – our cognition,” said Mary Flanagan, Founding Director of Tiltfactor. “Knowing the affordances of digital technologies can help us design better software.”

Geoff Kaufman, Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction Institute, commented on the findings: “Given that psychologists have shown that construal levels can vastly impact outcomes such as self esteem and goal pursuit, it’s crucial to recognise the role that digitisation of information might be having on this important aspect of cognition.”

These results could have implications in healthcare planning too. In a previous study involving Tiltfactor’s public health strategy game ‘POX: Save the People’, more participants produced localised solutions to health problems, rather than considering the bigger picture.

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