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October 2, 2010

Why is overhearing one side of a cellphone conversation so irritating?

Science may have the answer to yet another of life's minor vexations.

Roni Caryn Rabin's September 28, 2010 New York Times story reports on the results of a study just published that teases apart the conundrum of why hearing one side of a conversation is so much more annoying than hearing both ends.

The article follows.


Perceptions: When Speakerphone Is Less Distracting

Ever wonder why overhearing one side of a cellphone conversation can be so irritating — and why you feel compelled to eavesdrop in spite of yourself?

Lauren L. Emberson, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Cornell University, used to get so distracted by cellphone conversations overheard on the bus that she couldn’t focus on reading. It made her wonder whether hearing only half of a conversation — a “halfalogue,” she calls it — is somehow more disturbing than hearing the whole discussion.

Twenty-four students were asked to perform tasks that required constant attention, including tracking a cursor on a screen and pushing a button every time one of four letters appeared on the screen. The volunteers were told to ignore background noise, which alternated between a recorded conversation, a “halfalogue,” a monologue and silence.

The volunteers weren’t distracted by the conversations or the monologue, but their performance on the tasks was significantly impaired when the “halfalogue” was played, according to the study, published online in Psychological Science on Thursday.

Ms. Emberson speculated that hearing half a conversation may be distracting because it is less predictable than a dialogue, which has predictable patterns.

“When speech is unpredictable, we can’t control our brain’s reaction to it — it draws our attention in,” she said in an interview. “It’s harder to understand less predictable speech.”


Below, the abstract of the scientific paper.


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.

October 2, 2010 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Joe, there's a few devices like the one you described on eBay. I've got one I like to use in the bank. If I have to stand in line, I'd prefer to do it quietly. (SO does everyone else ;)

Posted by: Jesse | Oct 3, 2010 5:32:38 AM

What's really annoying is when a person talks loudly,


One day someone will make the "Cell Zapper"!

It will allow you (never approved by the FCC)to make all cell phones

within 15 feet DROP their call! (he-he, laughing like a madman)

Posted by: Joe Peach | Oct 2, 2010 5:45:42 PM

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