Using Your Cell Phone In Public Distracts Your Neighbors
March 14, 2013

Using Your Cell Phone In Public Distracts Your Neighbors

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

One of the ultimate faux pas in modern society is talking on a cell phone in a public area such as coffee shops, movie theaters and restaurants. Impolite as it may be, there are many people who will carry on lengthy (and often loud) conversations, allowing their temporary neighbors to be privy to only one half of a conversation.

A new study has found this behavior isn´t just rude, it´s also distracting. According to Veronica Galván and colleagues from the University of San Diego, these conversations are so distracting, they´re more likely to be remembered than the conversation being held between two live people. The resulting study has been published in the journal PLoS ONE.

To complete this study, Galván and team gathered some participants to complete a few mental tasks involving anagrams.

While these volunteers were working on their anagrams, the research team carried out some short and scripted conversations in the background. These conversations included topics such as birthday parties, meeting a date at the mall, and shopping for furniture.

One half of the participants heard only one side of the conversation, as researchers were carrying on the conversation on the telephone.

The other half of the participants were privy to both sides of the conversation, as the researchers spoke in person just within earshot.

Neither group of participants were aware the conversations were a part of the study.

“This is the first study to use a realistic situation to show that overhearing a cell phone conversation is a uniquely intrusive and memorable event,” said Galván in a statement.

“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.”

The participants who only heard one side of the phone conversation said they were much more distracted than the half who overheard both sides of the conversation.

The one-sided conversation wasn´t just distracting, it was also more memorable. When later asked to recall certain parts of the phone conversation, these participants were more likely to recall phrases and words from the phone call. These participants also made fewer errors when completing their anagram tests, though the researchers say there were not any significant differences between the results of the two groups.

The researchers suggest the ambiguity of these one-sided conversations cause unwitting eavesdroppers to pay even more attention, even if they don´t want to. This makes these conversations more distracting than if the same person were able to hear both sides of the conversation.

“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,” explains the study´s co-author, Rosa Vessal in the statement.

“Not knowing where the conversation is heading is what makes cell phone calls more distracting.”

This study is particularly relevant in today´s digital era. According to the study, an estimated 2.3 trillion minutes were spent talking on cell phones over the last year. This means people in grocery stores are more likely to forget items on their shopping lists, or worse, become distracted while driving a vehicle.

This study could also be used to dissuade students from working in coffee shops and other public places.