Overheard cellphone conversations “uniquely intrusive”

Confirming what many of us have long suspected, a new study in the journal PLOS ONE has found that a one-sided cellphone conversation in the background is much more distracting than overhearing a conversation between two people.

Conducted by Veronica Galván and colleagues from the University of San Diego, the study examined the effects on memory and attention of both one and two-sided conversations.

Participants in the study were asked to complete a task involving anagrams. As they performed the task, researchers carried out a short, scripted conversation in the background about shopping for furniture, a birthday party or meeting a date at the mall. Half the participants overheard one side of the conversation carried out on the phone, and the rest overheard the discussion as a conversation between two people in the room with them. The participants were unaware that the conversations were part of the study.

“We were interested in studying this topic since cell phone conversations are so pervasive and could impact bystanders to those conversations at work and in other settings of everyday life,” explained Galván.

She found that the participants who overheard the one-sided cell phone call thought the background conversation was much more distracting than those who heard it as a chat between two people. Not only did participants rate the cell phone conversation as more distracting, they also remembered more words and content from the cell phone conversation, and made fewer errors when recognizing which words were a part of the phone call.

“[This] research suggests that unintentional eavesdropping on cell phone calls can be explained by the additional attentional resources needed to understand the unpredictable content of the conversation. Not knowing where the conversation is heading is what makes cell phone calls more distracting,” concluded co-researcher Rosa Vessal.

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Source: Public Library of Science

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