In the early 1960s, University of Toronto Professor Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message,” suggesting we understand meaning based on how a particular idea is presented. McLuhan also believed a medium, such as radio or the internet, influences society by the content it delivers and also by how it delivers that content. A new study from Dartmouth and Carnegie Mellon University infuse McLuhan’s old impressions with new life.

When volunteers read a story on a laptop, they scored higher on a test of concrete details, yet lower on a test of abstract interpretation, than people who read a print-out of the very same story, two researchers discovered.

“These results are not intended to be an indictment of digital technology and its impact on cognition,” wrote co-authors Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan. Though abstract, imaginative thinking has its advantages, they explained that lower-level concrete reading is useful for analytical problem solving and risk assessment.

During an online reading task, past research found more than twice the spatial brain activation among an internet-saavy group compared to an internet-naive group. Results from other studies comparing online and print reading are often inconsistent and much of it focuses too much on individual features of digital platforms. For these reasons, it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions about differences in screen and print reading.

For their new study, Kaufman and Flanagan raised an entirely new question: “Has the human mind evolved to the point that the mere fact that information is being processed on a digital device be sufficient to activate a distinct mindset or pattern of processing?”

The research duo enlisted the help of 300 volunteers between the ages of 20 and 24 and conducted a series of experiments to find out. The researchers took care to make sure the reading material was published uniformly and used the same print size and format in both digital and print versions. Also, prior to each experiment, the participants completed a Behavior Identification Form, which includes 25 items, each representing a particular activity (for example, “making a list”). The form then asks respondents to choose one of two alternative descriptions: one, high-level and abstract (“getting organized”), and the other, low-level and concrete (“writing things down”).

“The Behavior Identification Form can be used either to measure natural inclinations or more temporary states of preference that are affected by context or situation,” Kaufman told Medical Daily. “We used the BIF in the latter sense.”

In the first study, participants read a short story on either a printout or a laptop. Then, they took a paper-and-pencil comprehension test.

For abstract (inference-based) questions, the print participants scored higher, on average, with 66 percent correct compared to the digital participants with just 48 percent correct. For concrete questions, digital participants out-scored the print participants: 73 percent correct versus 58 percent.

Similarly, when asked to read a table of information about four (fictitious) Japanese car models, print participants outperformed digital participants during the test phase when they had to select the superior model. Finally, when all participants read a table of information on a digital screen, those who performed a task triggering a more abstract mindset prior to the experiment outscored those who did not.

While Kaufman would hesitate to conclude that digital media affects how our brains’ process information in other contexts, he does note that digital media may be producing an evolution in cognition that reduces the likelihood or inclination toward abstract thinking as a default.

“If our conjecture is correct… this would suggest that as more of our time (and our brains’ time) is spent behind screens, the more ingrained (and potentially more automatic) a concrete-focused mindset or processing style may become,” Kaufman said.

In an email to Medical Daily, Flanagan posed additional questions for future exploration: “Are there effective ways to mitigate ‘on-screen’ concrete-focused thinking, such as particular designs in software, or even some off-screen work (to get effective thinking, say, in a classroom)? Does the size of the screen matter?”

Ultimately, Kaufman believes the current results provide an addendum to McCluhan's famous adage. “In addition to the medium being the message, the medium may change the message, [subjectively speaking anyway],” he said.

Source: Kaufman G, Flanagan M. High-Low Split: Divergent Cognitive Construal Levels Triggered by Digital and Non-digital Platforms. ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2016.