Mobile phones have quickly become a fundamental part of our life and, thus, an important element of our culture. As a cultural object, the mobile phone may now carry meanings.

The meaning that the object carries, that is, the mental representations it is associated with, explains how we feel and behave when we engage with or just think about the object. For example, the concept of the national flag is associated with the representation of the country in one’s memory. Because of this association, even a subtle reminder of the national flag can activate thoughts related to the country (Carter, Fergusson, & Hassin, 2011).

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Earlier, it had been proposed that, due to its social functions, the mobile phone has become associated with the meaning of social relationships (Gergen, 2003; Srivastava, 2005). Mobile phones’ social function is clear. People use them to maintain relationships and to feel connected and closer to friends and family members (Wei & Lo, 2006). We wanted to test if the mental representation of a mobile phone is indeed associated with the mental representation of social relationships. We thus conducted an experiment where we primed the concept of mobile phone and then measured if it activated, that is, made social relationship-related thoughts more accessible.

Participants were randomly assigned to two groups. In one group, we reminded people of their mobile phone by asking them a few questions about its physical appearance. In the control condition, people were asked the same questions about their wallet. Next, we tested the accessibility of social relationship related words with a word fragment completion task. As a usual measure of thought accessibility, participants had to complete twenty-five-word fragments to be existing words. Six of the words could be completed to words both with and without social relationship related meaning (e.g. _ _ VE to LOVE vs. MOVE). The other words served as a filler task and could not be completed to words with social relationship related meaning. If the reminder of the mobile phone activates social relationship-related thoughts, then social relationship-related words should become more accessible and people would more likely find them as a solution. We found that participants who were reminded of their mobile phone completed more social relationship-related words than participants in the control condition.

The results may explain previous findings that showed that even the mere presence of the mobile phone influences social interactions. If the mobile phone activates the thoughts of existing relationships, it makes sense that people will be less invested to establish new ones or pay less attention to the actual social environment (Turkle, 2011; Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013). It is not all negative, though. We like to be reminded of our loved ones and feel their presence — this I why we keep family pictures on our work desks.

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In general, studying the meaning of cultural objects can help us better interpret object-related activities. Mobile phones, of course, serve more than just social functions. Used dominantly for job purposes, mobile phones might become associated with work-related concepts, and their mere presence can thus activate work-related thoughts and emotions.

These findings are described in the article entitled Your mobile phone indeed means your social network: Priming mobile phone activates relationship related concepts, recently published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

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About The Author

Peter Kardos is a research scientist and professor of Psychology at Bloomfield College.