A Smartphone and a Newspaper Walk into a Bar: An Experiment on Social Perception


A Smartphone and a Newspaper Walk into a Bar: An Experiment on Social Perception

A man and woman are sitting on a living room couch. He’s doing a crossword puzzle, she’s reading news.

Does it matter on which medium they are doing these things? Does doing a crossword puzzle on paper mean something different than doing a crossword on a smartphone?

Yes, it turns out.

At least in how people are perceived by others. And, perhaps, in how couples or friends feel toward each other.

Technology brings people together by making communication easier, but it also has the potential to harm relationships in unforeseen ways.

Consumption… The Old-Fashioned Way

Family dynamics got me thinking. Why does it feel uncool for my husband and me to be reading news on our phones over breakfast, and yet it would feel just fine — or even intimate — if we were reading printed newspapers?

The phone or tablet feels like a shut-out – an exclusive little universe that separates the viewer from people in their presence. Perhaps it’s the assumption that the viewer isn’t just receiving information (i.e. news) or distraction (i.e. crossword puzzle or another game), but is interacting with other people to the exclusion of those physically in the same room.

But do those who grew up with smartphones feel the same way? Is consuming information on a device qualitatively different in a social context than consuming information in an old-fashioned way?

I set out to discover (a) if devices really do change how people perceive social interactions, and (b) if so, why?

What’s In Their Hands?

We brought this question to our lab. We hired two actors to pose as a couple reading the news and/or doing crossword puzzles next to each other on a living room couch.

We produced three sets of images in which all details were identical except for what the couple held in their hands. For each set of images, the couple was pictured from the front and from behind, to make it clear what they were looking at.

In the first set of pictures (Treatment A), the couple is both looking at newspapers. An image from over their shoulders shows that the man is looking at a crossword puzzle and the woman is reading the news.

In the second set of pictures (Treatment B), the couple is both looking at phones, with the over-the-shoulder shot showing a crossword puzzle and the news on their respective devices.

Finally, in the third set of pictures (Treatment C), the couple are both looking at cell phones, but it is unclear from behind what they are each doing or reading.

We put one of these three images in front of 779 American adults.

Chart: Same actors, same couch, same pose

For starters, our mock couple is perceived substantially more favorably when reading the paper than when looking at their phones, even when we make it clear that the phones are being used for crossword puzzles and news.The results tell an interesting story.

Indeed, our newspaper-reading couple is perceived to be twice as “strong” in their relationship as our phone-reading couple. While 68% of respondents rated our newspaper-reading couple as either “strong” or “very strong” in their relationship, just 34% of respondents felt this way about our phone-viewing couple.


One might expect there to be gender-based or generational differences in how this couple is perceived.

Not so.

In fact, no statistically significant differences exist in the perceptions of men and women, or between those older or younger than age 35. The only statistically significant difference we noted was driven by income. Those earning over $50,000 per year perceived the newspaper-reading couple significantly more favorably (78%) than those earning less than $50,000 (64%).

Further — and to my surprise — no significant differences existed between how people perceived the two smartphone treatments. In other words, it didn’t matter whether it was clear what the two people were doing on their phones. Seeing that the couple was doing crossword puzzles and reading the news was irrelevant in shaping perceptions. If anything, responses were a bit less favorable (not statistically significant) among those who saw the content of the couples’ phones — the opposite of what I had hypothesized would be the case.


This finding is important. It means that a puzzle or news article is not qualitatively the same when viewed on paper as on a mobile device, at least in how it may influence your social space.

The “Crossword Rule”

In drafting new smartphone-era guidelines on etiquette, some have suggested using the “Crossword Rule”. This rule instructs that if you’re in a situation where it would be rude or uncomfortable to work on a crossword puzzle, then it isn’t a good time to peruse your phone either.

However, our research suggests that such a guideline may actually underestimate the impact of phone usage on how you are perceived and on the quality of your relationships.

As it turns out, you’d actually be better off blatantly puzzle-solving from Section D of the daily paper than doing the exact same thing on your tablet.

Which brings us to advice that goes something like this: If you care to be perceived as inclusive and connected to those around you, keep your phone in your pocket or attempt to share what it is that you’re up to.

After all, perceptions have a way of becoming reality.

Photo credit: The Working Actor Group, Alpharetta, Georgia