You’re Not the Only One Who Feels Phantom Cellphone Vibrations

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 11 2012 12:31 PM

You’re Not the Only One Who Feels Phantom Cellphone Vibrations

Ever feel your phone vibrating against your leg, pull it out, and realize it wasn’t vibrating after all? You're not alone—but you might be neurotic.

In a new study from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, 89 percent of undergraduates reported experiencing “phantom vibration syndrome” at least once. On average, they felt the nonexistent buzzing about once every two weeks—but some felt it much more often.

Researchers haven’t decided whether the vibrations amount to a misinterpretation of sensory input, a form of social contagion, or an outright hallucination. But this study and one before it have identified some factors that make people more likely to experience faux vibrations frequently. The most persistent phantom buzzing victims tend to be heavy mobile phone users who attach a lot of emotional importance to their text messages.

The studies have gone so far as to pick out two personality traits that correlate with these factors: extraversion and neuroticism. Extraverts, the theory goes, check their phones a lot because keeping in touch with friends is a big part of their lives. Neurotics, meanwhile, worry a lot about the status of their relationships—so while they may not get as many text messages, they care a lot about what they say.

In contrast, those who score highly in conscientiousness on the Big Five personality test tend to have fewer phantom vibrations, because they’re less addicted to their phones and less easily distracted.

The good news is that “phantom vibration syndrome” probably isn’t really a syndrome—few subjects in the study reported being particularly bothered by it.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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