Cellphones: One voice irks all

Psychology researchers pinpoint why cellphone talkers are so distracting.

You know the type — chatting away on their cellphone while on the bus, in the line at the grocery store, or before a movie starts. Few people, or situations, are more irksome. But what makes overhearing these half conversations so annoying, especially compared to listening in on a full two-way exchange?

A new study from the psychology department at Cornell University has found that cellphone conversations irritate us so much because their one-sided nature — grad student Lauren Emberson calls them “halfalogues” — forcibly takes away our attention from what we’re doing, bringing us into another person’s (often unfamiliar) world. Since we can’t hear the full conversation, we find their chatter unpredictable, making it harder for us to concentrate on our tasks at hand.

Researchers had college-student subjects perform concentration tasks while listening to three types of speech. The cellphone halfalogue produced significant distraction. Two-way conversations, on the other hand, such as those you get among colleagues between cubicles at work, didn’t drain listeners’ attention.

Emberson’s primary concern is reducing the risk of distraction for drivers and other operators where safety’s an issue. But the office isn’t immune. One-sided landline conversations, though more familiar, can be just as distracting.