The Telegraph
Thursday , March 14 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
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Psst, don’t listen in on cell talk Distracting?
- Why hearing one-sided mobile chatter annoys more than dialogue

New Delhi, March 13: Listening to a one-sided cell phone conversation in a work environment or public space may be more distracting to people than exposure to two-sided chatter, a research study has suggested.

The study by a team of US psychologists is being described as the first to examine the effects of cell phone conversations on bystanders in real-world situations where they overhear only one side of a conversation.

Their findings, published today in the journal PLoS One, suggest that people who overhear one-sided conversations find them more noticeable, distracting, or even annoying than people who unintentionally listen to two people talking.

“We find that overhearing a (one-sided) cell phone conversation is a uniquely intrusive and memorable event,” Veronica Galvan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of San Diego who led the study, told The Telegraph.

Galvan and her colleagues examined how undergraduate students react to either one-sided or two-sided conversations through a study that simulated natural settings: the participants were unaware that the conversations were part of a study and they could decide for themselves whether to listen in to the conversations or not.

They assessed the participants’ distractability and memory and found that people pay greater attention to one-sided cell phone conversations than to two-sided conversations.

Their study bolsters evidence for an idea proposed earlier by other scientists that missing information, or incomplete chunks of information such as those available through one-sided conversation are more likely to draw more attention than two-sided chatter.

Scientists point out that the content of the conversations will also determine the level of attention individuals give even to one-sided conversations.

“The content would itself need to be interesting — otherwise listeners may just turn away,” said Nandini Chatterjee-Singh, a neuroscientist at the National Brain Research Centre, Manesar (Haryana), who was not associated with the study.

The US researchers say it would be interesting to find out what types of tasks are more likely to be impaired through overheard one-sided cell phone conversations.

“I think some tasks would be susceptible because some attention is captured by the overheard conversation,” Galvan said in an interview.

Most studies in the past have focused on how cell phone conversations distract users themselves. A number of studies have shown that drivers using cell phones are slower to change speed or brake and pedestrians talking on cell phones pay less attention to street conditions than when they are not using their phones.

The new study did not test what aspect of the phone conversations the participants found annoying.

The researchers believe one possible explanation for the annoyance is that bystanders — unintentional listeners — exposed to a one-sided cell phone conversations in a work environment or in a public space such as a bus stand or inside a metro coach have no control over the conversation. Earlier studies have shown that bystanders find cell phone calls annoying when they are unable to leave the area.

Galvan, whose research collaborators were Rosa Vessal and Matthew Golley, said one implication of the results was that performance may be greater in work environments with less one-sided conversations.

“If it was simple to implement and didn't hamper [required] communication, it might be a good idea to have some work areas in which it is okay to have typical conversations, but one-sided phone calls were limited, Galvan said.