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Reading on Screens Can Influence the Way We Think

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, May 16, 2016


Digital Platforms May Shape Our Perceptions

If we want to go paperless and read everything on screen, we may risk missing the forest for the trees.

New research suggests that reading on tablets, laptops and other digital platforms makes us more inclined on focus on specific details and less predisposed to use the kind of abstract interpretations normally at play in understanding the world around us.

The research was conducted at Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor, an interdisciplinary innovation  lab  that designs and studies games for social impact. Geoff Kaufman, PhD, an assistant professor at the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Tiltfactor during the study, and Mary Flanagan,  PhD, Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities, at Dartmouth and a founding director of Tiltfactor, led the study.  The work was prompted by earlier studies showing people who played the digital version of the health strategy game POX: Save the People” were inclined to propose localized solutions rather than looking at the big picture.

To examine whether screen or paper presentation might trigger a different interpretive lens, more than 300 participants read the same material in the same type and format, some in digital platforms, and some in printouts. Some participants read a short story by David Sedaris on a laptop while other read it in print, and both took a comprehension test afterwards. On questions dealing with abstraction and inference, the print readers did better, scoring  66 percent correct, compared to 48 percent correct for the digital readers.  On concrete questions, the digital readers did better, scoring 73 percent correct, compared with 58 percent correct for the print readers.

Participants were also given tables of information about four fictitious car models on screen and on paper and asked to select the superior cars.  Print readers outperformed digital readers by 66 percent to 43 percent. However, digital readers improve their performance after a priming activity designed to activate a higher construal level leading to more abstract mindset.

While much research has been devoted to how digital platforms impact memory, distractibility, mindfulness and attention, the researchers say, the impact on abstract interpretation has been understudied.

 “Given that psychologist  have shown that construal levels can vastly impact outcomes  such as self-esteem and goal pursuit, it’s crucial to recognize the role that digitization of information might be having on this important aspect of cognition,” Kaufman said in a ScienceDaily story. 

Given the ubiquitous use of digital devise, apps, smart phones, and distribution of iPads in schools, it’s important to study how digital tool impact our understanding, Flanagan said.  Understanding the impact on abstract perceptions, she says, can lead to development of software that overcomes tendencies or deficits inherent in digital devices.


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