Tablet and laptop users, take note! Using digital platforms for reading may change the way you think, making you more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly, a new study has found.
The findings serve as another wake-up call to how digital media may be affecting our likelihood of using abstract thought, researchers said.
Scientists from Dartmouth College in the US tested the basic question – would processing the same information on a digital versus non-digital platform affect “construal levels” – the fundamental level of concreteness versus abstractness that people use in perceiving and interpreting behaviours, events and other informational stimuli.
In order to study the basic question of whether processing the same information on one platform or the other would trigger a different baseline “interpretive lens” or mindset that would influence construals of information, researchers tried to hold as many factors as possible constant between the digital and non-digital platforms.
Reading material and other content for the study, for example, was published using the same print size and format in both the digital and non-digital (print) versions.
The research was comprised of four studies that evaluated how information processing is affected by each platform. A total of more than 300 participants, ages 20 to 24 years old, took part in the studies.
Participants were asked to read a short story by on either a physical printout (non-digital) or in a PDF on a PC laptop (digital), and were then asked to take a pop-quiz, paper-and-pencil comprehension test.
For the abstract questions, on average, participants using the non-digital platform scored higher on inference questions with 66 per cent correct, as compared to those using the digital platform, who had 48 per cent correct, researchers said.
On the concrete questions, participants using the digital platform scored better with 73 per cent correct, as compared to those using the non-digital platform, who had 58 per cent correct, they said.
Participants were then told to read a table of information about four, fictitious Japanese car models on either a PC laptop screen or paper print-out, and were then asked to select which car model is superior.
As many as 66 per cent of the participants using the non-digital platform (printed materials) reported the correct answer, as compared to 43 per cent of those using the digital platform, researchers said.
Triggering a more abstract mindset prior to an information processing task on a digital platform appeared to help facilitate a better performance on tasks that require abstract thinking, they said.
“Given that psychologists have shown that construal levels can vastly impact outcomes such as self-esteem and goal pursuit, it is crucial to recognise the role that digitisation of information might be having on this important aspect of cognition,” said Geoff Kaufman from Dartmouth College.