NCBI ROFL: Why overheard cell phone conversations are extra annoying.

By ncbi rofl | October 13, 2011 7:00 pm

Overheard cell-phone conversations: when less speech is more distracting.

“Why are people more irritated by nearby cell-phone conversations than by conversations between two people who are physically present? Overhearing someone on a cell phone means hearing only half of a conversation–a “halfalogue.” We show that merely overhearing a halfalogue results in decreased performance on cognitive tasks designed to reflect the attentional demands of daily activities. By contrast, overhearing both sides of a cell-phone conversation or a monologue does not result in decreased performance. This may be because the content of a halfalogue is less predictable than both sides of a conversation. In a second experiment, we controlled for differences in acoustic factors between these types of overheard speech, establishing that it is the unpredictable informational content of halfalogues that results in distraction. Thus, we provide a cognitive explanation for why overheard cell-phone conversations are especially irritating: Less-predictable speech results in more distraction for a listener engaged in other tasks.”

Photo: icanhascheezburger

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  • Snoopydoc

    Surely that has to get an IgNobel at some point? :-)

  • Anonymous

    Maybe it has more to do with the annoyance that someone is turning his/her back on the here and now, and even though occupying the physical space is not really present. No excuse me, but the call is more important than everything and everybody here. And then! then, though the conversation is staggeringly trivial, it’s the act of a techno-showoff, a little consumerist ostentation. Dopes.

  • Georg

    Half of a Dialogue is a Monologue!

  • Casey

    There was an article about this in Science News from October 9th, 2010. Unfortunately it’s paywalled, but they essentially made the same claim.

  • Anonymous

    Oh look, it’s this article again.

  • Alice Pacino

    While this study might have some merit I think they made a significant mistake in overlooking something far more obvious and intuitive to explain the irritability of passive listeners to a cell phone conversation – it is the “volume” of the speaker that angers others. Plenty of people use cell phones in public places every day without aggravating others or “disrupting cognitive processes”. Most people, certainly in public transit and at coffee shops, use
    headphones for personal music listening so its not like they are going
    to be over-hearing many conversations anyway. As long as conversations are conducted with a moderate level of volume no one seems to care or feel invaded. The sound of cell phone conversations has long been part of the ambient noise scape common to urban settings.

    But consider rather that its those speakers who, for whatever reason, like to raise their voices that cause unrest. It used to be the primary offenders were guys who were trying to sound like heavy duty deal makers to attract attention “let’s shift the 2 mil over to Merck and hedge it with a quick dump of those mutuals”. And they look around to see if anyone was checking them out. Put another way – its only when I detect that someone really wants me and others to hear their conversation that I get irritated. The clue is their volume.  For whatever reason (general insecurity I suspect), there are those people who DESPERATELY WANT others to hear their conversation and the easiest way to do it is by getting loud. People pick up on this and the eyes start rolling.

  • neilbeairng

    this is a funny cat.


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NCBI ROFL is the brainchild of two Molecular and Cell Biology graduate students at UC Berkeley and features real research articles from the PubMed database (which is housed by the National Center for Biotechnology information, aka NCBI) that they find amusing (ROFL is a commonly-used internet acronym for "rolling on the floor, laughing"). Follow us on twitter: @ncbirofl


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