June 01, 2009
Cell Phone Ringing Lowers Brain Peformance

I like research that demonstrates that which I already believe.

A flurry of recent research has documented that talking on a cell phone poses a dangerous distraction for drivers and others whose attention should be focused elsewhere. Now, a new study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology finds that just the ring of a cell phone may be equally distracting, especially when it comes in a classroom setting or includes a familiar song as a ringtone.

"In any setting where people are trying to acquire knowledge and trying to retain that information in some way, a distraction that may just seem like a common annoyance to people may have a really disruptive effect on their later retention of that information," said the study's lead author, Jill Shelton, a postdoctoral psychology fellow in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

The study includes an experiment in which Shelton poses as a student seated in the middle of a crowded undergraduate psychology lecture and allows a cell phone in her handbag to continue ringing loudly for about 30 seconds.

Students exposed to a briefly ringing cell phone scored 25 percent worse on a test of material presented before the distraction.

Students tested later scored about 25 percent worse for recall of course content presented during the distraction, even though the same information was covered by the professor just prior to the phone ring and projected as text in a slide show shown throughout the distraction. Students scored even worse when Shelton added to the disturbance by frantically searching her handbag as if attempting to find and silence her ringing phone.

"Many of us consider a cell phone ringing in a public place to be an annoying disruption, but this study confirms that these nuisance noises also have real-life impacts," Shelton said. "These seemingly innocuous events are not only a distraction, but they have a real influence on learning."

They found song ring tones even more distracting than ringing sounds.

Big complaint: People in office settings should switch their phones to vibrate. If they do have the ringer on it should be turned way down. Also, when they get a call they should walk outside. The noise pollution is a big problem.

While I'm at it: allowing cell phone use on airplanes is an argument for driving. We really need sound deadening technology that will protect us from the noise pollution generated by others around us.

Any reader ever used a device that blocks cell phone frequencies? Such devices would be useful to turn on at the beginning of meetings and at symphony, opera, and ballet performances. Some places should be licensed to be allowed to turn on cell phone frequency jammers.

Are there any sociopaths among my readers who think it is okay to subject class mates and co-workers to your loud ringing cell phone?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 June 01 11:24 PM  Brain Performance

D. Ariely said at June 1, 2009 11:55 PM:

"I like research that demonstrates that which I already believe."

You should be extra wary of confirmation bias then.

sanjay suryavanshi said at June 2, 2009 2:45 AM:

We do agree & we have install lots of jammers in Indian schools which are developed & approved by IIT MUMBAI.
Benifits are good.

sanjay suryavanshi said at June 2, 2009 2:48 AM:

We do agree & we have install lots of jammers in Indian schools which are developed & approved by IIT MUMBAI.
Benifits are good.

Mthson said at June 2, 2009 4:37 AM:

To deal with noise pollution when I'm sleeping, I wear ear plugs use a noise machine/alarm clock that plays a rain soundtrack. Turning up the volume high lets me sleep through just about anything.

Lono said at June 2, 2009 7:48 AM:

This certainly IS a big problem now - but I wonder if it will be better when we have internet glasses, hand sensors, and sub-vocalization?

I remember the constant quiet whispering of Asian students in the Engineering Library surprisingly turned out to be a lot more distracting to me than the Animal House antics going on out in the hall in my dorm - I worry that this may be the case with the above as well.

I friggin' HATE cell phones now - for a lot of reasons - distraction being high on the list - but I'm no luddite - I look forward to communication tech going to the next level.

Just passed a law here in CO that texting while driving will be finally illegal - but if people aren't worried about threat of sudden death I don't know how concerned they will be about getting a ticket... or annoying other drivers...


Penny said at June 2, 2009 12:00 PM:

Jamming would be alright as long as a notice is posted about it, so that people who want to have phone reception have the option of leaving. Doctors on-call, hopeful transplant patients carrying a your-organ-is-ready pager, and others with urgent needs should not be subjected to disruption of their communications without notice.

NukemHill said at June 2, 2009 1:56 PM:

Umm ... what was the point again? That a cell phone allowed to ring for 30 seconds was annoying and distracting?


Someone actually did a study on this. For reals?

I just lost one minute of my life that I'm never getting back.

Brett J said at June 3, 2009 7:17 AM:

Makes sense; i'd think we're trained to prioritize phone-related sounds since it's by extension an attempted communication. The prevalence/commonality of cell phones & their ringing/buzzing limits this but it's still difficult to mentally de-prioritize them.

(Also just had to comment on this, got a little thrill from commenting on a post that D. Ariely did too. Hi Dan! Love your work :)!)

Lono said at June 3, 2009 8:31 AM:

Is that really him?

I also find his work very interesting!

Reminds me of when Bjarne Stroustrup replied to a low level C++ question from my College Lab Partner, on a public forum - it was quite unexpected.

I like the new Intel commercial with Ajay Bhatt - the co-inventor of USB - with the quote "Our Rockstars are not like Your Rockstars"


Maybe one day - they will be!

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