Last week on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we talked about the ubiquity of multitasking in the Digital Age and its contributions to our endlessly distractible, reliably forgetful, and attention-deficient modern world. We discussed the ways in which forgetfulness and distractibility may end up detracting from the capacity to consistently demonstrate or communicate care, sensitivity, and respect, thereby creating an environment bursting with opportunities to lose trust and connection in our relationships. We also described the ways in which the habitually scattered 21st century mind often becomes accustomed to a sort of apathetic unreliability – the kind that regularly makes a mess of one’s personal life.

In our examination of relationship problems that may manifest from this mental state, we also mentioned that The Digital Age can create enormous difficulties in making decisions and exercising good judgment. The Digital Age, according to Nicholas Carr of The Shallows, both empowers and disempowers society. The writer puts this succinctly:

“We program our computers and thereafter they program us.”

According to Carr, many studies show that “our ability to learn can be severely compromised when our brains become overloaded with diverse stimuli online.” In today’s posting, we will explore one such study, and explain its connection with (and significance for) our area of interest – human relationships. The following is a brief summary of this study:

The consistent result of the research we refer to above may be exemplified in the findings of Christof van Nimwegen in his 2003 study on computer-aided learning. The Dutch psychologist compared the performance of two groups in a difficult logic puzzle on the computer – one group worked with a helpful program that provided onscreen assistance to participants, while the other did not receive any hints or visual cues. The outcome was clear: the first group, the one that worked with the aid of a helpful program, did not fare as well as the second. The proficiency of participants who did not receive help or hints from the program increased more rapidly (they were able to solve the puzzle more quickly and with fewer wrong moves). They also demonstrated a tendency to plan ahead and strategize, while the group that received help was far more likely to proceed in a random manner of trial-and-error. The subsequent study performed 8 months after this experiment yielded another very important result: those participants who used the unhelpful program were almost twice as fast as those who received assistance from the software!

So, what does this mean? These results increasingly lead researchers in the field to believe that human beings are significantly hindered by the increasing “helpfulness” and user-friendliness of developing technology. We find it more and more difficult to learn. According to van Nimwegen, participants who did not rely on the help of the program demonstrated “more focus, more direct and economical solutions, better strategies, and better imprinting of knowledge.” 

From The Shallows:

“The more that people depended on explicit guidance from software programs, the less engaged they were in the task and the less they ended up learning. The findings indicate, van Nimwegen concluded, that as we ‘externalize’ problem solving and other cognitive chores to our computers, we reduce our brain’s ability ‘to build better knowledge structures’ – schemas, in other words – that can later ‘be applied in new situations.’” 

It is becoming painfully clear – the more that we rely on ever-increasingly user-friendly software to solve problems and “think” for us in complex situations, the less we are able to rely on ourselves. Because we no longer need to learn as much to perform the tasks that we need to accomplish – projects assigned at work, planning our days and lives (as demonstrated by another test in which volunteers were asked to schedule meetings involving overlapping groups of people) – we lose our ability to find solutions when problems arise. We are, as Carr says, “automating” the mind. When it comes to brain power and cognitive activity, it seems that old maxim applies: use it or lose it! 

In the area of human relationships, we are definitely not helping ourselves. With our smart-phones and various gadgets, we are capable of texting, emailing, plugging into and being flooded with information from social media sites from virtually any corner of the world. Unfortunately, the flood of social data constantly inundating our collective consciousness does little to increase (and much to impede) our social intelligence. Whether you are meeting close friends for an afternoon in a café or trying to manage a relationship conflict with a level head, chances are that, at least at some point, you won’t have the opportunity to edit yourself: to delete a less-than-ideally worded phrase or add a clarifying emoticon to the end of a potentially inflammatory statement. 
So we need to think clearly without relying on our shiny-hopeful-looking-technological-gadget-friends. When an individual doesn’t learn and practice the skills of real-time face-to-face conversation, he doesn’t feel confident in his ability to communicate with ease and grace in person, and may naturally respond irrationally when put “on the spot.” From business settings (at the office, meeting with clients, talking to coworkers or your boss) to interactions with your family, friends, and partners, skills in relating to people face-to-face in real time are absolutely necessary. Without them, serious challenges arise that promise to affect every area in a person’s life. From easy, carefree exchanges to difficult conversations in stressful times, social skills are the bedrock of our relationships.

One of the most important and difficult social skills to learn is truly listening. As Dr. Gottman writes in his book, The Relationship Cure: 

“You won’t go far without a strong foundation of good, basic listening skills. Your knack for drawing others out and expressing genuine curiosity about their lives can be a real boon to bidding for connection and establishing satisfying relationships. Good listening skills can help you to feel easy in all sorts of social situations, and to build the kind of rapport that leads to solid emotional bonds.”

On Wednesday, look forward to our overview of Dr. Gottman’s active listening skills! 

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Will We Ever Learn?

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.