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Cellphone Conversations: Annoying and Distracting

Now it’s official: Cellphone conversations are annoying.

According to a study published in the scientific journal Plos One, merely listening in on someone else’s one-sided cellphone conversation can be more distracting and irritating than regular two-sided eavesdropping.

While other similar studies have focused on how cellphone conversations affect the user, particularly as it relates to cognitive activities like driving or crossing a street while talking, researchers here set out to learn how such conversations affect the people around the caller. “Cell phone conversations may be a common source of distraction causing negative consequences in workplace environments and other public places,” said the authors.

To test their theory, researchers told college students they were participating in a study examining the relationship between anagrams and reading comprehension.  That part of it was a ruse.  While the students worked on the assignment, either one examiner made a fake, scripted, one-sided cellphone call or two examiners had a live, two-sided conversation.  According to the researchers:

Participants who overheard the one-sided conversation rated the conversation as more noticeable, and distracting. They were also more surprised that the conversation took place than participants in the two-sided condition. Participants who overheard the one-sided conversation were also more likely to rate the content and volume of the conversation as annoying than those who overheard the two-sided conversation.

Veronica V. Galván, assistant professor of psychology at the University of San Diego and the lead author of the study, told the NY Times that such conversations are so irritating because the brain is trying to fill in the blanks. “If you only hear one person speaking, you’re constantly trying to place that part of the conversation in context,” Dr. Galván said. “That’s naturally going to draw your attention away from whatever else you’re trying to do.”

One possible explanation as to why these conversations can be so annoying is the inability of the bystander to get away from the conversation:

Research has shown that bystanders in situations where they are not free to leave (for example, waiting for or using public transportation) often find cell phone conversations annoying. Other research investigating the effects of lack of control have shown that lack of perceived control can, in turn, lead to an increase in stress responses.

Researchers also tested the students on how the conversations affected recognition.  In this study, “participants who overheard the one-sided conversation performed better at the recognition memory task than those who overheard the two-sided conversation,” indicating that they paid more attention to — or were more distracted by — the cellphone conversation than they did to the live, two-person conversation.

Galván told TIME that her findings could shed light on multi-tasking behaviors in general. “If people become absorbed in an overheard conversation and were paying attention to it, then performance on whatever task they were working on would suffer.

(By Alan Lyndon)

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