Study finds mental link to phantom vibrations

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 - 2:40pm

If you find yourself checking your phone only to realize the vibration you thought you felt was non-existent, you may be more anxious when it comes to relationships.

Those who have higher attachment anxiety in their relationships are more likely to interpret ambiguous physical sensations as cell phone messages, according to recent University research. In contrast, people who have higher attachment avoidance are less likely to have these “phantom” experiences when they anticipate receiving calls or messages, and tend to be less sensitive to phone alerts. 

Using the Psychology Subject Pool, University researchers created an online survey to analyze the increasingly common phantom phone vibration phenomenon — which a cell phone user believes they felt a phone vibration or heard a notification erraneously. The survey consisted of different measures to gauge the link between the sensation and the subject's attachment style in relationships, considering anxiety responses vs. avoidance responses, specifically.

Daniel Kruger, research assistant professor of health behavior and health education, collaborated on the research with assistants in his Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program in his lab. Kruger said he studies evolutionary theory to understand the psychology of behavior, and has done previous work with attachment styles, which are ways we feel attachment to others. He was also part of a previous study with a former UROP research assistant who observed people and saw that cell phone use is contagious.

The project began with looking into the intersection of virtual social space and in-person space, specifically researching social media. 

“If you have a couple of people and they’re sitting together in a coffee shop and talking together, and one person picks up their cell phone, the other person is more likely to do so,” Kruger said.

Considering this phenomenon, research assistant Jaikob Djerf, an LSA junior, suggested researching phantom vibration, or phantom cell phone ringing.

“I was curious why some people feel it more than others, why people are even feeling it in the first place,” Djerf said. “It’s a cultural phenomenon — so many people do experience it, and it’s significant in the sense that we found personality traits that influence this phenomenon.”

Though Kruger said the phenomenon was something he has experienced before while driving, he was at first unaware this was a common sensation. However, because there is not much research being done about phantom vibration, Kruger said they designed the study to analyze several different aspects that were related to this sensation.

“In one way, [cell phones are] a practical device,” Kruger said. “You can get information, you can find out where the bus is, you can read the news. But it’s also your connection to social world, with Facebook, Twitter, the other different social media applications and websites.”

Some of the reasoning behind having attachment cravings is simply individual differences, Kruger said. However, he noted a craving for reassurance could be a combination of genetic variation and environmental and developmental experiences. Normally, attachment style develops in infants and young children and can potentially in adult social relationships.

“Because the cell phone isn’t just this objective, practical tool for objective information, because it has the social component, detection is going to be influenced by these psychological factors, such as a craving for relationship stimulation,” he said.

Djerf said researchers used a popular personality scale called the Big Five to create their survey. The Big Five is a five-factor model which refers to the five dimensions psychologists use in analyzing personality — openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion.

According to Kruger, inn addition to the Big Five, the researchers also used the Dark Triad, another group of personality traits psychologists use that holds a negative connotation. The Dark Triad includes narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, indicating that scoring high in these traits is related to malevolence.

Kruger said the researchers also made their own scale about phantom cell ringing, asking if the participant had ever experienced it, and if so, how often and how bothersome the sensation was. The three types of stimulation highlighted in the survey included a cell phone’s ringing, vibration and notification.

Among the most common sensation felt by those surveyed was a phantom vibration, in which people feel something on their skin that might be simple sensation, but they interpret the sensation as their phone buzzing.

"This could be due to the ambiguity of the stimulus,” Kruger said. “Sounds are more distinguishable, and it is more difficult to have a visual hallucination than it is to interpret a tactile sensation.”

With the new and rapidly developing state of technology, cell phones and social networking, Kruger said the world is only starting to understand the psychological dynamics and implications of objects like cell phones. 

“Still, it just kind of shows at least some people might be too dependent on this cell phone technology, so the recommendation is it might be good practice to sometimes not have your phone on or not constantly be checking these applications.”

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