October 06, 2004
Cell Phones And Shopping Networks Problematic For Human Nature

Andrew Monk at the University of York and coworkers found that what makes the overhearing of cell phone conversations so annoying is that you can only hear one side of them.

We also feel an innate need to listen when we can only hear one side of a conversation, the researchers say. Even if it's no louder than a regular two-way exchange, the fact that we can only hear half means that we instinctively tune in, almost as if we're expecting to join in to complete the conversation.

If this idea is correct, the researchers reason, then mobile phone chatter should be no more annoying than overheard conversations where both people are present but only one voice is audible. When Monk and his team tested their theory on railway passengers in Britain, that's exactly what they found.

The article reports that ther are now silent carriages on British trains which only came about since the introduction of cell phones. Humans were never sufficiently irritated with each other's conversations to demand such carriages before cell phones came along.

This strikes me as yet another example of how modern communications technologies create environments that do not mesh well with how humans were evolved to relate to each other. It was unusual historically to find oneself able to listen to only one half of conversations. It was also unusual to be able to listen but not be able to join in on a conversation. The mind is wired up to listen to complete conversations (and even to ignore them as a whole) and finds it irritating to hear only half a conversation. I've certainly found myself annoyed at having to listen to people talk on phones. This result shows this reaction is not uncommon.

A cable arts channel occasionally shows a 1908 documentary "Moscow clad in snow" which shows what life was like outside in Moscow in the winter. One of the striking things about the film is the one horse sleighs moving in long lines along busy streets so slowly that people could talk to each other (not that one could tell from the film whether they did so) as they passed by. The sleighs were all open and the horses were moving at a speed that would allow casual exchanges. Compare that to cars today on the road. People rarely can speak to each other and events happen much more quickly. Technology has created unnatural ways for people to interact and "road rage" should not be an entirely surprising result.

Another example of unnatural interactions is with TV and movies and the idolization of stars and imagined relationships with people that most people will never meet. Imagined relationships are a part of the TV shopping channel experience that increases sales.

In order to determine if viewers developed close relationships with program hosts, the participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they agreed with statements like “The hosts are almost like friends you see everyday.”

Impulse shopping was measured by how participants rated their agreement with statements like “I decide what to buy after I watch television shopping programs.”

It’s not surprising that viewers develop close relationships with hosts, Lennon said. The shopping channels actively encourage viewers to feel close to the hosts.

“The hosts and guests on these shopping programs use a variety of conversational techniques that may encourage pseudo-interactive responses on the part of viewers,” she said.

“The hosts focus on similarities between the viewers and themselves, in order to facilitate a relationship.”

In addition the hosts invite viewers to contact them, and often provide e-mail and postal addresses, as well as telephone numbers to contact the hosts.

“Viewers develop attachments to their favorite hosts, and we find that this encourages viewers to buy more impulsively without considering whether they need the clothing they are buying,” Lennon said.

We can create changes in our environments orders of magnitude more rapidly than humans can evolve to adapt to those changes. Rules such as bans on cell phone use in many situations are natural responses to unnatural and problematic changes wrought by technological advances. It is not ignorant Luddism to support such rules. Humans need to regulate changes in their environments to keep down stress and maladaptive responses to technological changes.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 October 06 04:45 PM  Brain Society


Comments
Jason Ligon said at October 7, 2004 8:35 AM:

"We can create changes in our environments orders of magnitude more rapidly than humans can evolve to adapt to those changes. Rules such as bans on cell phone use in many situations are natural responses to unnatural and problematic changes wrought by technological advances. It is not ignorant Luddism to support such rules. Humans need to regulate changes in their environments to keep down stress and maladaptive responses to technological changes."

Interesting piece. What I am unconvinced of is that rules are the way to go in most of these situations. Technologies like headphones and MP3 players allow us to create individualized private spaces, for example. Characteristic of the Luddite instinct is the destruction of the value of a technological tool in the name of preserving a state of inefficiency that one happens to be accustomed to, and I fear that the blunt nature of the instrument makes this the likely outcome of democratically arrived at rules.

Grady said at October 16, 2004 12:30 PM:

I would agree that technologically derived problems need technological solutions.

I can't wait to go to London, get on one of those "silent" cars by mistake, get a call, and then get complaints. All I'll have to do is cover the mouthpiece and say, "I'm american." That'll shut 'em up.

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