Thought Starters

Why We Value Our Phones: The Human Impulse for Social Connection

A Psychiatrist’s perspective on humans, our devices, and our distant past

How do you feel when you realize you’ve forgotten your phone? Anxious? On edge? It’s a state of mind that interests Dr. Katharine J. Nelson, a board-certified psychiatrist and Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota. She’s worked with people who, when their phones are placed in an adjacent room, report feelings of grief, loss and distress. 

Why do we have such intense feelings about our devices? There are many explanations, though a recent conversation with Nelson brought two to light that, interestingly, date back to our earliest days as human beings. 

1. We associate connectivity with survival

“In our early days,” says Nelson, “at the beginning of our species, we worked together to survive. Hunting, gathering, sharing caves. Our social connections kept us safe. They were literally a matter of life and death.” 

In other words, we are a species primed to value social connections because our underlying self-preservation mechanisms believe these relationships are key to our survival. So when our phones—devices that today facilitate a sizeable amount of our overall social connections—are out of reach, we may feel that our access to the social connections that keep us safe are out of reach as well. This can, in turn, lead to distress, says Nelson. 

 How much distress? It varies. “There’s definitely a bell curve,” says Nelson, noting that some of us will feel this distress more acutely than others.  The point is that, for many of us today, our phones provide the social connectivity that we are primed to feel we cannot live without. 

2. We’re afraid of not contributing 

Just as we have a primal desire to connect with others, we are also driven to contribute to groups, says Nelson. This explains, in part, why it’s so difficult for us to ignore alerts on our phones. 

“When you get a text or notification, there is a tension to check it—to be connected, to fulfill your role in the conversation,” says Nelson. “Your body can actually experience the risk of not responding immediately as a potential threat.” 

Why are we threatened by the idea of not responding? “We don’t want to offend ‘the tribe’,” says Nelson, “because primal brain regions fear this could be associated with a reduced chance of survival. We don’t want to hunt or gather alone. We don’t want to be ‘kicked out of the cave’.” 

Our desire to protect ourselves via group contributions can manifests itself online in a variety of ways, says Nelson. For example, in an effort to contribute to the group, some people will post a lot, feeling that the more they post, they more they’ve done for the group. Others will contribute via feedback, liking everything that needs to be liked, commenting on everything they feel they should. “It’s all a way of maintaining safety,” says Nelson, “of doing what you feel you can.”  

If we have, as a species, come to view our phones as tools that help us act on our deeply held impulses to connect and contribute socially, then it’s easy to see why so many of us keep them close and use them as much as we do. 

At the same time, it becomes difficult to imagine what might motivate us to use our phones less. Perhaps the solution may be found through the intentional use of our higher-level, more evolved thinking—a mindful cultivation of awareness of the irony at play—which is that our frequent use of our phones to connect socially actually often diminishes our capacity to connect socially with those standing right next to us.