Why It Feels Like Your Phone Is Vibrating In Your Pocket When It Isn't

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Dan Nosowitz


How many times have you pulled your phone out of your pocket, thinking you felt a vibration that could mean any number of treats (Twitter replies, emails, phone calls, text messages, a turn in whatever game you’re playing)? A a study found that 80 percent of respondents felt that phantom buzz.

The BBC takes a look at the psychological underpinnings of this phenomenon (and we use that term very, very lightly). Those underpinnings mostly involve signal detection theory, which is basically the ability to decipher stimuli from random patterns. That might mean hearing your name being called in a noisy room, or it might mean figuring out if your phone is buzzing in your pocket. In the latter case, you have four possible outcomes to an attempted answer to the question “is this phone buzzing”: a hit (yes it’s buzzing, and yes you detected it), a miss (yes it’s buzzing, but you did not detect it), a correct rejection (it’s not buzzing, and you decided it was not buzzing), and a false alarm (it’s not buzzing, but you thought it was).

The latter of these options is what we’re talking about when we talk about phantom buzzes, and the explanation is pretty simple: it isn’t always easy to tell if a phone is vibrating, and the reward for a hit is much nicer than the punishment for a false alarm. It’s no big deal if we check our phone and nothing’s going on, but we certainly don’t want to miss an alert, so our perceptive senses are on high alert for anything that might possibly indicate a vibration.

Check out the full post over at the BBC.


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