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Why we hate ‘halfalogues’ (overheard cell-phone conversations)

While gardening on Sunday, I had to ask the workmen building a new house two doors away to please turn down their radio. I had found it impossible to shut out the sounds of the muffled voices coming from whatever station they had on. I couldn’t tell what the voices were saying, but every once in a while I’d catch a stray word or two.  The noise wasn’t loud, but I found the sound very distracting — and irritating. So after half an hour, I spoke to the workmen. They kindly turned the radio off.

As I was trying to ignore the snippets of radio banter, I wondered if my brain was struggling with the same kind of issues regarding unpredictable information that occurs when we listen to those highly irritating one-sided cell-phone conversations.

For, according to a new study from psychologist Michael Goldstein and PhD candidate Lauren Emberson of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., it’s not the loudness of those conversations that irritate us, but the fact that the content of cell-phone “halfalogues” (yes, that’s the official term for them) is unpredictable.

In other words, when we hear someone talking on a cell phone, our brains try to fill in the conversational blanks. In fact, our brains find it difficult to not take on that task.

And because our brains dislike engaging in two cognitive-demanding tasks at the same time, the study also found that simply overhearing one end of a cell-phone call exacts a much greater toll on our ability to concentrate than listening to the more predictable speech of a monologue or a conversation between two people.

To conduct their study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, the Cornell researchers asked students to perform attention-demanding cognitive tests (such as tracking a moving dot using a computer mouse) while listening to a monologue, a two-way conversation and a halfalogue.

Listening to only half a conversation significantly lowered the volunteers’ scores on the tests.  Listening to a monologue or two-way conversation did not.

“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,” conclude the study’s authors.

With some 285 million cell phones now in use in the United States, I think all of us can make one solid prediction: those irritating conversations are here to stay.

(There’s no abstract of the study yet available to the general public. You can read a press release about the study here.)

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