Science Explains: Why Overheard Cell Phone Conversations Are So Annoying

DiscoblogBy Joseph CalamiaMay 21, 2010 10:06 PM


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How many yakking people does it take to drive you freaking nuts? Not two. Not three. Researchers say it only takes one--if they're talking to someone else you can’t hear. Cornell University scientists monitored how well 41 college students could perform concentration exercises (like tracking moving dots on a computer screen) in different listening environments. They compared their skills while working in silence to working while listening to a monologue, a conversation between two people, or a half conversation—called a “halfalogue.” In a paper to appear in Psychological Science, they say that this last case, listening to only one side of a conversation, was the most distracting. We all like to eavesdrop, so getting only part of the story can be especially frustrating. The Los Angeles Timesreports:

"We believe this finding helps reveal how we understand language in conversation," the lead author of the study, Lauren Emberson, said in a news release. "We actively predict what the person is going to say next and this reduces the difficulty of language comprehension."

Scene: your favorite coffee shop. Enter the dude on his cell phone. Emberson and her team believes this half-convo confusion is part of what makes overheard cell phone chats so annoying. One wonders what this study could mean for office environments, and, researchers say, it’s also concerning for the drivers of backseat talkers. As in a Reuters article:

"These results suggest that a driver's attention can be impaired by a passenger's cell phone conversation," according to the study.

Though the data might seem to say otherwise, this is NOT an endorsement for speaker-phone. Related content: 80beats: Surprise! Study Suggests Cell Phone Use Could Actually Fight Alzheimer’s Discoblog: New Lip-Reading Cell Phone System Can Allow for Silent Conversations Discoblog: Crazy Pseudoscience Theory of the Day: Cell Phone Ringtone Can Cure Your Allergies! Discoblog: Cell Phone Kisses: New Phone Will Send Your Smooch Through the Airwaves

Image: flickr / Mr.Thomas

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