Research: UB students choose smartphones over food

Nov 16, 2018

This is a trick question: You are a college student and don't have much money, so you're faced with a choice between keeping your smartphone operating or buying enough food. What's your choice? New University at Buffalo research has the answer.

According to UB's research, the answer is your smartphone.

This is research from clinical psychology doctoral student Sara O'Donnell. That means she is surrounded by people constantly on their phones, faces to the screen.

She works in a lab at the Jacobs School of Medicine, which does a lot of research into eating problems. She was interested in finding out if smartphones could reinforce behavior, as food, drugs and alcohol do.

The researcher also looked into how much use phones get each day. O'Donnell said she wanted to see which reinforcing behaviors were stronger.

"Smartphone reinforcement really far exceeded food reinforcement, but I knew, because I'm relatively younger, that people would be really motivated to use their phone," she said. "So I was suprised by the extent to it, but the difference was so large, but I know that people would be motivated to use their phones."

O'Donnell said reinforcing behaviors don't exist in a vacuum.

Sara O'Donnell led the research.
Credit Sara O'Donnell

"We're often choosing between different behaviors. It's nice to be able to compare cell phones to a reinforcer that we know is a very powerful reinforcer. So, we know that everybody has food reinforcement to some degree. That food reinforcement can motivate a lot of behaviors."

O'Donnell worked with 76 UB students 18-22 years old, testing how they could function without food for three hours or phones for two. They had to study or read newspapers instead. Then, the students could use a computer to order either food or use of their smartphone and see how much they could earn of either.

O'Donnell said there are possibilities of smartphone addiction. There was also a questionnnaire of hypotheticals about how much they would spend to have more phone use. She says the students didn't realize how much time they spent on their phones.

"We had people bring in their cell phone bills to the appointment and we compared the information we got off that, how many text messages they sent versus how many they told us they sent," she said, "and we found that people were largely really inaccurate. They were unable to say how much text message they had sent over the previous month."