Losing the Forest in the Digital Trees [...]

New study suggests that we are losing the forest for the trees when we read digitally.

There are several explanations for why mobile digital technologies may prime or trigger a lower-level, concrete mindset in individuals. As noted earlier, prior work has shown that even brief experiences with digital technology for newcomers can have significant effects on neural networks associated with working memory and rapid decision making. Likewise, a growing number of accounts attest to particular information processing habits, such as quick scanning and skimming [4, 24], and expectations, such as immediate gratification, that individuals come to associate with their interactions with digital platforms [18]. The ever-increasing demands of multitasking, divided attention, and information overload that individuals encounter in their use of digital technologies may cause them to “retreat” to the less cognitively demanding lower end of the concrete-abstract continuum. The present work suggests that this tendency may be so well-ingrained that it generalizes to contexts in which those resource demands are not immediately present.

These results are not intended to be an indictment of digital technology and its impact on cognition. Indeed, there is great value in utilizing lower-level, concrete construals of information, particularly in domains requiring the careful consideration of lower-level details, such as analytical problem solving [6] and risk assessment [11]. At the same time, if the increasing accessibility and ubiquity of digital technologies is causing a shift toward the prioritization of concrete construals of information, it is important to consider the ramifications of this trend. Thus, the present work may provide an impetus for HCI designers and researchers to consider strategies for encouraging users to see the “forest” as well as the “trees” when interacting with digital platforms.

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