Science Explains: Why Overheard Cell Phone Conversations Are So Annoying

By Joseph Calamia | May 21, 2010 1:06 pm

halfalogueHow 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 Times reports:

“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

MORE ABOUT: cell phones, language
  • Rain

    We all eavesdrop? Talk about a swooping generalisation.

  • Georg

    Science Explains: Why Overheard Cell Phone Conversations Are So Annoying

    That is why plain old telefon should be preferred.

  • MediaMentions

    Interestingly enough, similar surveys regarding cell phones have actually had an impact. Here’s an example I came across today: http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/showlink.aspx?bookmarkid=FH0Z80UUUK52&preview=article&linkid=5fabf41d-99ff-47a6-b5c4-c747a56d2982&pdaffid=ZVFwBG5jk4Kvl9OaBJc5%2bg%3d%3d

    Enjoy!

  • geeta

    Disagree. It isn’t the ‘halfalogue’ part that annoys me, when i am trying to do my own stuff – it is any loud conversation that dislodges me from my work.
    And obviously, when you said ‘cell phone’ you just menat ‘phone’, right? I used to work out of a cubicle, over 10 yrs ago when cell phones weren’t around, next to this one loud colleague who was perpetually on the phone ranting about his dating stories to different people back-to-back – talk about private conversations. So annoying that it made me let my manager know. This was more of a monologue than a conversation, but still mighty annoying. So it is the attitude of the voice as well as the subject matter and the length of disturbance that determines the degree of annoyance – not the evesdropping part at all, to me. The added annoyance of cell phones comes from its omnipresence.

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