Wharton's Shiri Melumad discusses her research on the psychology of smartphone use.

Go ahead and play with your smartphone. The latest research from Wharton marketing professor Shiri Melumad shows that interfacing with a mobile device provides some emotional benefits for stressed-out adults, and that in turn has implications for marketers trying to reach an on-the-go audience. Melumad spoke to Knowledge at Wharton about her research and why we shouldn’t feel so bad about spending time staring down at our phones.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: Could you talk about what areas of research you focus on?

Shiri Melumad: My core research interests fall into the domain of mobile consumer behavior and the role of effect in consumer psychology. My current research is sort of at the intersection of these domains, so I’m focusing on what is fundamentally different about the psychology of smartphone usage. Specifically, the questions that I am interested in include: What are the psychological factors that drive the use of our phone? What are the psychological consequences of using our phone? And how does all of this impact mobile consumer behavior?

Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the key takeaways of that? Are you going to make me feel bad about using my phone?

Melumad: Actually, I’m hoping to make you feel not so bad about using your phone. One of the key takeaways of my work is that consumers seem to have a uniquely emotional relationship with their smartphones over and above its functional value. In one stream of my work, I show that smartphones often serve as a sort of adult pacifier for many consumers. It’s providing similar emotional and psychological benefits that a pacifier or security blanket might provide to a child.

For example, in one of my studies I show that consumers who feel stressed, after engaging with their phone, show greater recovery than people who engage with the identical content on a comparable device. In that sense, you might want to feel a little bit better about your relationship to your phone. It seems to have, at least in the short term, some positive outcomes.

In another stream of research, I look at how smartphone use is changing the way that we express ourselves in user-generated content. Specifically, I show that smartphone use is driving the creation of content that is more emotional and more positively emotional relative to the use of comparable devices.

“One of the key takeaways of my work is that consumers seem to have a uniquely emotional relationship with their smartphones over and above its functional value.”

Knowledge at Wharton: Now that we know this about our relationships to our phones, how can we use this to our advantage?

Melumad: We can answer that question from two perspectives: the consumer side and also from a marketing and firm side. From the consumer side, to your point earlier, we often hear about people’s “addiction” to their smartphones. That would speak to the negative consequences of using our phone. But what my research suggests is that there could be some psychological benefit to the extent that we’re in a more relaxed mindset while we’re browsing on our phones. There’s prior research that has shown that people who are more relaxed are more receptive to certain types of messages. So, as a consumer welfare advocate I could leverage the use of the phone to push my content onto the user and perhaps send notifications when someone is overusing the device, or making them just more mindful of their use of the device.

In terms of practical implications from the firm side, we know that mobile has recently replaced PC as the dominant online platform, and firms are increasingly pursuing what are called mobile-first strategies. What is clear is that it is becoming increasingly critical for firms to understand the specific consumer psychology of smartphone use. What my results are telling us is that in trying to understand the consumer behavior associated with this device, it’s very important to look beyond just the functionalities that it affords.

Our phone is also a rich, emotional object that fulfills needs that very few other objects can fulfill in adulthood. It isn’t just that our phone is simply providing another platform for us to consume content or to generate content online, but it also seems to be changing the very nature of the content itself.

Knowledge at Wharton: It’s not enough for a brand to have an ad that is optimized for mobile. It’s also about: What is this content, and how is it hitting the right emotional note for the state of mind I am in while on my phone?

“It is becoming increasingly critical for firms to understand the specific consumer psychology of smartphone use.”

Melumad: That is a really excellent point. That is one of the directions that this research is headed in because I think advertisers and marketers are mostly focused on whether the visualizations are optimized for mobile, but less about how content might actually be fitting depending on the device people are receiving the advertisement on.

Knowledge at Wharton: What is next for this research?

Melumad: I am definitely interested in continuing to test for evidence that our phones can act as a sort of adult pacifier. For example, in the next stage of this work, I am going to be focusing on what are the particular antecedents that drive this relationship to the device? To what extent are the functionalities making us emotionally attached to our phones?

One way I’m planning on testing this is to manipulate not just the device that people are using, but also ownership. I’m predicting that using my own phone will relieve stress to a greater extent than using a functionally identical phone that belongs to someone else. Whereas this difference should be less pronounced when we use a comparable device, let’s say a laptop. One way I’m planning on testing this is with my colleague [Wharton marketing professor] Michael Platt, who also has a joint appointment with marketing and neuroscience and psychology. We plan on testing for this physiologically. We’re interested in seeing how consumers physiologically react to their devices.

In another stream of work, I’m going to continue to focus on the relationship between smartphone use and user-generated content. This time, I’ll be looking at not just how our phones influence the generation of content but also the consumption of online content. In one project with [Wharton marketing professor] Bob Meyer, we’re looking at how using our phones actually changes our preferences for online content on Twitter, for example.