Why cell phone talkers are annoys-makers

Unpredictable “halfalogues” distract those trying to do other things

They’re everywhere — yammering on the subway, yukking it up on sidewalks, yakking away in restaurants. It’s the invasion of the cell phone slinging, super-annoying attention snatchers!

Cell phone users irritate so mightily because their background chatter forcibly yanks listeners’ attention away from whatever they’re doing, says psychology graduate student Lauren Emberson of Cornell University. Overhearing someone spewing intermittent exclamations into a handheld gadget lacks the predictability of hearing a two-way exchange and thus proves inherently unsettling, Emberson and her colleagues report in an upcoming Psychological Science.

That makes it harder to focus on one’s own immediate business, be it reading a book, contemplating a work presentation or driving a car, the researchers propose.

These new results raise the unsettling possibility that drivers operate vehicles poorly not only while talking on cell phones (SN: 3/13/10, p. 16) but also when passengers gab on the devices. Further research will look for such an effect in people operating driving simulators.

“Drivers should be aware that one’s attention is drawn away from current tasks by overhearing someone on a cell phone, at least in our attention-demanding lab tasks, and that this effect is beyond conscious control,” Emberson says.

Overhearing a whole conversation while focusing on something else does not drain listeners’ attention, the investigators assert.

Their new findings appear relevant to real-world behaviors such as driving, remarks psycholinguist Benjamin Bergen of the University of California, San Diego. Individuals who overhear cell-phone chatterers often try to guess what the unheard talker has just said or thought, contributing to distraction, Bergen proposes.

“I bet people are often trying to fill in the blanks when they hear half of a conversation,” he says.

Cell-phone talkers’ louder-than-usual voices may also divert others’ attention, suggests psychologist David Strayer of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. People speaking in person give each other nonverbal cues that modulate voice volume, but that’s missing in cell phone conversations, he says.

Emberson’s team had 24 college students perform two attention tasks both in silence and while hearing each of three types of speech played through headphones — two women talking to each other on cell phones in a dialogue, a woman talking on a cell phone to an unheard person in a “halfalogue,” and a woman recapping a cell-phone conversation in a monologue.

One attention task involved keeping a mouse-controlled cursor as close as possible to a moving dot on a computer screen. Volunteers tried to maintain focus on specific visual cues, a skill needed for driving a car, Emberson says.

The average distance participants kept the cursor from the moving dot spiked for a fraction of a second after they heard each utterance in a halfalogue. No corresponding increases appeared after speaker changes in a dialogue or in any parts of the other two conditions.

A second task required participants to remember four letters and hit a computer key as fast as possible every time one of those letters appeared on a computer screen, while ignoring other letters. Volunteers had to deploy attention selectively and respond quickly when necessary, much as occurs when drivers react to traffic signals, Emberson says.

Accurate identification of the specified letters declined slightly but to a statistically significant extent during halfalogues relative to the other three conditions. Given the speed at which people perceive what others say, subtle disturbances of this type of attention could undermine speech comprehension, Emberson hypothesizes.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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