Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Paul L. Wachtel

Committee Members

Lissa Weinstein

Steven B. Tuber

Subject Categories

Clinical Psychology


Mobile device, cell phone, interruption, TAT, thematic apperception test, story telling


This study examined the impact of a cell phone interruption on participants’ emotional experience during a conversation, using the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) (Murray, 1943) as a measurement instrument. The study explored whether or not, after losing their conversation partner’s attention to a cell phone, subjects would: tell stories reflecting less adaptive representations of relationships with oneself and others, as measured using a social cognition and object relations rating, SCORS (Stein et al, 2011); tell stories containing more negative emotional words, as measured using a linguistic inquiry software, LIWC (Pennebaker, 2001); and tell stories containing fewer words total.

Methods: The study’s participants were 90 undergraduates enrolled at The City College of New York, between the ages 18-26 with an average age of 20.1 years. They were asked to tell three stories in response to three TAT picture cards, then exposed to one of three conditions, then asked to tell three more stories in response to TAT picture cards. During the period between the first three cards and the second three, subjects were asked what the experience of telling stories was like. One-third of subjects were uninterrupted (control condition), one-third were interrupted by the sound of the experimenter’s cell phone to which the experimenter attended (cell phone condition), and one-third were interrupted by a knock on the door to which the experimenter attended (door knock condition). After the experiment, subjects were debriefed to check for suspicion.

This study unified two experimental methods heretofore only used separately. It made use of an active cell phone interruption, which had previously only been used to look at the interruption’s impact on cognition (Smith et al, 2011; Thornton et al, 2014), and it made use of a conversation paradigm, which had previously only been the setting for examining the impact of the mere presence of a cell phone on trust and relationship satisfaction with a conversation partner (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2012).

Results: Surprisingly, subjects in the cell phone interruption condition, compared to those in the control condition, told stories after the manipulation which reflected higher self-esteem. Results also indicated that those in the control condition told stories in the second set of three stories that used words with more positive emotional tone than those in the cell phone interruption condition. Lastly, while not statistically significant, participants in the control condition told stories in the second set of three stories with on average 19% more words than their first three stories, while those in the phone interruption condition told stories that became modestly shorter subsequent to the interruption.

Discussion: The findings suggest that participants experienced some emotional impact as a result of losing their conversation partner’s attention to a cell phone. They told stories containing themes of higher self-esteem. Unlike those in the control condition who demonstrated an increased positive emotional tone after being asked about their experience, they did not experience a boost to the positive emotional tone of stories told after being interrupted during conversation. And while not statistically significant, unlike those in the control condition who told stories containing more words after being asked about their experience, those interrupted by a phone told stories that contained moderately modestly fewer words.



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