Overheard Cell Phone Conversations: Less Speech Equals More Distraction


Newswise — Feeling annoyed by the person next to you chatting away on a cell phone? Researchers at Cornell University show this is more than an illusion and your reaction is only normal.

According to a peer-reviewed study forthcoming in Psychological Science co-authored by Lauren Emberson, doctoral candidate in psychology at Cornell University, and Michael Goldstein, assistant professor of psychology at Cornell, we are distracted from overhearing half of a conversation—a halfalogue—but not overhearing both sides of a conversation. Emberson and her co-authors conclude that we are unable to tune out cell-phone conversations, which likely leads to our irritation.

“Hearing half a conversation is distracting because we are unable to predict the succession of speech,” Emberson said. “We believe this finding helps reveal how we understand language in conversation: We actively predict what the person is going to say next and this reduces the difficulty of language comprehension.”

With more than 285 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. alone, cell phone distraction is becoming a ubiquitous irritant in public places, from coast to coast.

“People are often more irritated by nearby cell phone conversations rather than conversations between two people who are physically present. Since halfalogues really are more distracting and you can’t tune them out, this could explain why people are irritated.”

The study, “Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Speech is More Distracting,” appears in the peer-reviewed journal, Psychological Science.

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