September 21, 2010
Cell Phone Conversations Lower Brain Performance

A “halfalogue” is much worse than a dialogue. People who want to use cell phones to talk need the equivalent of a smoker's area. Far better that they do texting or emailing.

“Yeah, I’m on my way home.” “That’s funny.” “Uh-huh.” “What? No! I thought you were – ” “Oh, ok.” Listening to someone talk on a cell phone is very annoying. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds out why: Hearing just one side of a conversation is much more distracting than hearing both sides and reduces our attention in other tasks. 

Lauren Emberson, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, came up with the idea for the study when she was taking the bus as an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “I was commuting for 45 minutes by bus every day and I really felt like I couldn’t do anything else when someone was on a cell phone,” she says. “I couldn’t read. I couldn’t even listen to my music. I was just so distracted, and I started to wonder about why that could be.” 

I always watch for research on how cell phone one-side conversations distract people around a cell phone talker because I find it so true. Hearing one side of a conversation is very distracting, far more so than hearing the whole conversation.

For the experiment, Emberson recorded two pairs of female college roommates as they had a cell phone conversation. She recorded each conversation both as a dialogue, in which both women could be heard by a listener, and as a “halfalogue” in which only one side of the conversation could be heard, the same as overhearing a cell-phone conversation. She also recorded each woman recapping the conversation in a monologue. Then she played the recordings at volunteers as they did various tasks on the computer that require attention, such as tracking a moving dot using a computer mouse. 

The unpredictability of hearing only one side of a conversation taxes mental resources more heavily and makes it harder to filter out the conversation.

Sure enough, volunteers were much worse at the concentration tasks when they could only hear half of the conversation. Emberson thinks this is because our brains more or less ignore predictable things, while paying more attention to things that are unpredictable. When both sides of the conversation are audible, it flows predictably, but a cell phone conversation is quite unpredictable. Emberson conducted the study with Gary Lupyan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michael Goldstein of Cornell University, and Michael Spivey of the University of California-Merced.

So look, people carrying on cell phone conversations on buses, in airplanes before take-off and after landing (oh I hate that - better to just message), and in restaurants are stressing the brains of the people around them, ruining their peace of mind, cutting back on their already limited amount of time needed for mental rest and rejuvenation. Worse yet are the people who do not turn off their cell phones in theaters and at classical music concerts and operas.

Another pet peeve: Locking A Car With A Short Horn Blast Is Rude And Obnoxious.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 September 21 08:40 PM  Comm Tech Society


Comments
Sione said at September 21, 2010 10:15 PM:

"So look, people carrying on cell phone conversations on buses, in airplanes before take-off and after landing (oh I hate that - better to just message), and in restaurants are stressing the brains of the people around them, ruining their peace of mind, cutting back on their already limited amount of time needed for mental rest and rejuvenation. Worse yet are the people who do not turn off their cell phones in theaters and at classical music concerts and operas."

Damn right. How true. Why can't these turdies either wait & go outside or just stay silent?

--

Thinking about how good batteries for cell phones have become- they are just too good, allowing bores to witter on and on and on. Imagine if the battery only allowed a total of 5 minutes talk time before requiring a three hour recharge at huge expense. How careful people would be. It'd be important to really economise when speaking on a cellphone. One would need to carefully consider which calls to answer and which to discard. One would need to consider on each occasion whether there really was an important enough reason to be placing a call. Instead batteries are good enough to make cell phones operate for days without recharge but not good enough for powering a car for very long (not good enough yet anyway). Still it is entertaining to imagine how things would play if they were the other way about- say 550 miles battery range (with only minutes to recharge at some utterly trivial cost) and only five minutes phone talk time! It's an entertaining thought. At least those one sided conversations would all but disappear.


Sione

Kudzu Bob said at September 22, 2010 12:38 AM:

The sci-fi writers of old envisioned technology as impersonal as it was grand--atom-powered rocket ships, moon bases, vast arcologies, and so on. But our Twenty-first Century technology is instead comprised of such curiously personal and intimate gadgets as laptops, cellphones, and iPods, all of it made to be carried or worn. Further advances in science will presumably include brain implants (perhaps inhaled like a nasal spray) and prosthetic devices not merely as good as, but actually better than, our original limbs and organs. Their nature can only be guessed at, but one thing that I am quite sure of is that these devices will provide us with novel ways to be rude to one another.

Tom Mazanec said at September 22, 2010 4:21 AM:

I only use my cell phone for emergencies.
Bob Newhart made a comedy career out of one sided phone conversations.

Michael L said at September 22, 2010 9:22 AM:

why not buy better ear plugs or other noise canceling device?

Randall Parker said at September 22, 2010 6:48 PM:

Michael L,

Next time you fly take noise canceling earphones with you. Turn them on. What I find: By canceling out the steady background noise they make it easier to hear conversations. Noise cancellation means conversations become more intrusive, not less.

The problem with spoken words is that they are not constant noise. It is far easier to filter out constant noise than it it is to filter out spikey sounds like words.

Also, I do not want to become deaf so that a minority of people can carry out halfalogues around the rest of us.

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