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HEALTHLINE NEWS

Digital Reading Can Cause You to Miss the Bigger Picture

Research from Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor lab suggests reading something online versus on paper affects whether we absorb concrete details or abstract theories.

digital reading vs paper

If you really want to understand how the ideas in this article fit into the grand scheme of things, you may want to print it out first.

If you just want the facts, keep scrolling.

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Printing out an article on the web may not be environmentally friendly, but some research suggests you’ll be able to better grasp the abstract subjects discussed in it better than if you read it on your phone, tablet, or laptop.

New research from Dartmouth College’s Tiltfactor lab suggests that, to a certain extent, our brains handle a message differently when delivered digitally or on good old-fashioned paper.

When you’re reading something on a digital device, you zero in on the immediate details and you may not be able to see the forest from the trees.
Geoff Kaufman, Carnegie Mellon University

In other words, an e-book can give you the facts, but a hardcover book can better help you understand the full story.

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“When you’re reading something on a digital device, you zero in on the immediate details and you may not be able to see the forest from the trees,” Geoff Kaufman, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and a postdoctoral researcher at Tiltfactor at the time of the study, told Healthline.

Tiltfactor Lab, an academic game research center, typically develops games with social or scientific angles.

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One such game is “Pox,” where players cooperate with vaccines and herd immunity to prevent an outbreak. Another is “Layoff,” where you play as a corporate manager amidst a downsizing.

Their findings, which they say, “serve as another wake-up call to how digital media may be affecting our likelihood of using abstract thought,” were presented earlier this week at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Read More: Technology Creating a Lifetime of Pain for Millennials? »

Paper vs. Tablet

Researchers at Tiltfactor took a look at how digital media behaves when relaying a message.

To understand this, they recruited more than 300 college-age and graduate-age adults to take part in experiments to determine how reading on a digital device varies from that on paper.

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They found, overall, digital devices influence concrete details — the “here and now” — while reading on paper has us interpret the information more abstractly to understand the big picture.

The experiments addressed the “construal theory,” a relatively new theory in social psychology that suggests the farther something is away from someone, the more abstractly it will be observed. The closer it is, the easier it is to see the trees in the detailed forest.

digital reading vs paper

Construal levels have been shown to impact things like self-esteem and goal pursuit due to how information is understood. Researching how we digest information can have an important impact on how we understand and view the world around us.

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In one experiment, subjects read a short story by New York Times bestselling author David Sedaris. Some read on a physical printout while others read a PDF file on a laptop.

On a subsequent quiz, those who read paper copies fared better on abstract questions — such as themes of the story — while those who read a digital copy did better on recalling the concrete details of the story.

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On another test, subjects were given information on four fictitious Japanese cars and asked to select which model was superior. Two-thirds of those who viewed the information on paper chose the right car, compared with 43 percent of those on digital platforms.

There are, of course, limitations to the study, including small sample size and the fact it only involved subjects aged 20 to 24, the first generation to be completely immersed in digital information their entire lives.

Read More: Millennials Driving Change in Public Attitudes Toward Sex »

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Digital Devices and the Concrete Future

Neuroscience research shows that the brains of even novice internet users — including those in their golden years — can change to adjust to the different ways to stimulate the decision making and complex reasoning parts of the brain.

But those who keep their reading merely to paper are dwindling.

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According to the latest Pew Research data, 92 percent of American adults own a cell phone or smartphone, 73 percent own a computer, and 45 percent own some type of tablet. That’s a lot of screens for a lot of reading.

  • 92 percent of Americans own a cell phone
  • 73 percent own a computer
  • 45 percent own a tablet

While it still remains to be known to what extent all these glowing screens will do to humanity’s ability to communicate and digest information, we cannot eliminate the brain’s ability to learn to adapt to the ever changing world.

Now that an increasing amount of information is consumed digitally, evidenced in part by how brick-and-mortar bookstores are going the way of the West African black rhino, Kaufman says technology will continue to shape the human brain for years to come.

“There’s something profound about how these effects will be,” he said.

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