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Why Are Overheard Cellphone Conversations So Annoying?

May 20, 2010

U.S. researchers believe they have found the answer for why overhearing a cellphone conversation is so annoying.

According to scientists at Cornell University, whether it is the office, on a train or in a car, only half of the conversation is overheard, which drains more attention and concentration than when overhearing two people talking.

“We have less control to move away our attention from half a conversation (or halfalogue) than when listening to a dialogue,” said Lauren Eberson, a co-author of the study that will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

“Since halfalogues really are more distracting and you can’t tune them out, this could explain why people are irritated,” she said in an interview with Reuters.

According to the U.S. wireless trade association CTIA, Americans spent 2.3 trillion minutes talking on cell phones last year.

According to the International Telecommunications Union, a U.N. agency, there are about 4.6 billion cellphone subscribers globally.  That number is equivalent to about two-thirds the world’s population, leaving few places on the planet without someone talking on a cellphone.

Figures from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) show that China has the most cellphone users with 634 million, followed by India with 545 million and the U.S. with 270 million.

Eberson told Reuters that people try to make sense of snippets of conversation and predict what speakers will say next.

“When you hear half of a conversation, you get less information and you can’t predict as well,” she said. “It requires more attention.”

The findings by Eberson and her co-author Michael Goldstein are based on a study of 41 college students that did concentration exercises, like tracking moving dots, while hearing one or both parties during a cellphone conversation.

The students made more errors when they hear one speaker’s side of the conversation than when overheard the entire dialogue.

Eberson told Reuters the study shows that overhearing a cellphone conversation affects the attention we use in our daily tasks, including driving.

“These results suggest that a driver’s attention can be impaired by a passenger’s cell phone conversation,” according to the study.

The study recommends similar studies should be conducted with driving simulators.

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