Using digital platforms such as tablets and laptops for reading may make you more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly – a factor that can affect your problem-solving ability and creative thinking.
Considered as the most complex stage in the development of cognitive thinking, abstract thinking helps us conceptualise, draw conclusions, or interpret complex ideas.
Impaired abstract thinking is frequently associated with reduced foresight, judgment, insight, reasoning, creativity, problem solving, and mental flexibility, according to LEARNet, a programme of the Brain Injury Association of New York State.
"There has been a great deal of research on how digital platforms might be affecting attention, distractibility and mindfulness, and these studies build on this work, by focusing on a relatively understudied construct," said lead researcher Geoff Kaufman, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, US.
In order to study the basic question of whether processing the same information on one platform or the other would trigger a different baseline "interpretive lens" or mindset, the research tried to hold as many factors as possible constant between the digital and non-digital platforms.
A total of more than 300 participants, aged 20 to 24 years, took part in the four studies that the researchers conducted.
In one of the studies, participants were asked to read a short story by author David Sedaris on either a physical printout (non-digital) or in a PDF on laptop (digital), and were then asked to take a pop-quiz, paper-and-pencil comprehension test.
For the abstract questions, on average, participants using the non-digital platform scored higher on inference questions with 66 percent correct, as compared to those using the digital platform, who had 48 percent correct.
On the concrete questions, participants using the digital platform scored better with 73 percent correct, as compared to those using the non-digital platform, who had 58 percent correct.
In a second study, participants were asked to read a table of information about four, fictitious Japanese car models on either a laptop screen or paper print-out, and were then asked to select which car model is superior.
Sixty-six percent of the participants using the non-digital platform (printed materials) reported the correct answer, as compared to 43 percent of those using the digital platform.
Triggering a more abstract mindset prior to an information processing task on a digital platform, however, appeared to help facilitate a better performance on tasks that require abstract thinking, the study found.
The study was published in the proceedings of Association for Computing Machinery’s ongoing conference on human factors in computing (CHI) in San Jose, California.