That thing where you feel your phone buzz in your back pocket when it’s not even on you, or you swear it just shook the countertop, but when you check your phone, nobody messaged you because you’re all alone in a bleak, indifferent universe? It’s a real thing, referred to variously as “ringxiety,” “vibranxiety” and “FauxCellArm.” Researchers have begun to uncover the reasons why certain people experience this phantom phone buzz. A new study finds that it’s possibly because you’re a sick puppy who craves a lot of attention — but you already knew that, didn’t you?
Daniel J. Kruger, a research assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan, decided to examine the relationship between cellphone dependency and phantom phone buzzing to suss out what in the name of God is wrong with us. Psychologists consider it a hallucination and a human signal-detection issue — you’re quite literally imagining a sound and sensation that has not actually happened. The question is, why?
In his study, to be published in May in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, Kruger expands on previous research (including his own) that established some context. One study found that somewhere between 27 percent and 89 percent of people experience these false alerts. Another found junior-level medical staff whose phones were in vibrate mode in their breast pockets were more likely to experience the phantom buzzing. Yet another found that people who use their phones in class and while eating are more likely to hear that ghost alert.
Your personality is an issue here, too. More extroverted people — people who like being around people, and enjoy attention — are more likely to hear phantom buzzes. Same with people who display what researchers call “high neuroticism,” which is “the tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability.”
Because the behavior mirrors compulsion more than actual addiction, researchers were unsuccessful in getting mobile phone addiction added to the DSM a few years ago. But Kruger notes that there are addictive properties involved — the fix of getting messages, the despair when you don’t, and using your phone obsessively despite negative consequences in real life.
Kruger wanted to know — since smartphones are clearly a drug — whether people who are more dependent on their phones are more likely to hear these phantom vibrations. Turns out, they are. For the study, Kruger surveyed 766 mobile-phone packing undergrads from a Midwestern university. Their average age was 19.
Participants took a personality test, and then were asked if they’d ever heard phantom vibrations, notifications or rings on their phone, and if so, how often, from several times a day to as little as once a month. Then they ranked their cellphone dependency via seven factors, including whether they use their phone to make them feel better, when isolated, or if they feel anxious when they haven’t checked their messages for some time. They also had to fess up to how irritated they were at having to turn off their phone during say, dinner or a movie — and how much they thought about getting their hands on their phone later whenever they weren’t using it.
The results: Cellphone dependency strongly predicts hallucinating alerts. And of all the types of phantom alerts out there (the hallucinated vibration, the hallucinated visual notification, the hallucinated ring), vibrations were far and away the most common — nearly 80 percent of the students surveyed experienced them. From there, women, younger participants, and those with higher neuroticism were more likely to self-report as cellphone dependent. Men reported more phantom experiences than women did, but the difference was not significant.
In an email, Kruger explained: “…Basically there is no sex difference in the amount of phantom vibrations experienced, but we have a better understanding of what predicts phantom vibration experiences in women than in men — personality factors, as mediated by cell phone dependency.”
His theory? “Perhaps men are less aware of and less accurately report their feelings and experiences, so our measures do not predict as well for them.”
While Kruger notes in the study that results like this can help advance discussions of addiction and technology, phantom sufferers should check themselves on a few things the study doesn’t mention: You may be more likely to hallucinate rings and alerts when you’re actually expecting updates — if you’re waiting to hear back from a date, or for big news from a friend or family member. (Or just jonesing for retweets on what you think is your most brilliant bon mot yet.) Those of us in this category should probably give ourselves a break.
Everyone else may just have to endure this otherworldly phenomenon and accept our helplessness. If there weren’t cellphones to obsess over, you’d probably be just as anxious waiting for landline calls, telegrams, or a guy on a horse to arrive in your village and hand you a letter from your long-distance love. Sure, you could try to stop using your phone so much, but if you did that, how would you know if that buzz was a message?
It’s not, but you won’t know unless you check.