Proportion of U.S. drivers
using a cell phone at any
given daytime moment
Proportion of U.S.
traffic fatalities linked
to distracted driving
Why cell phone talkers are annoying
Unpredictable ‘halfalogues’ distract unwilling eavesdroppers
By Bruce Bower
They’re everywhere — yammering on
the subway, yukking it up on sidewalks,
yakking away in restaurants. It’s the
invasion of the cell phone–slinging,
superannoying attention snatchers!
Cell phone users irritate so mightily
because their background chatter forcibly yanks listeners’ attention away from
whatever they’re doing, says psychology
graduate student Lauren Emberson of
Cornell University. Overhearing someone
spewing intermittent exclamations into a
handheld gadget lacks the predictability
of hearing a two-way exchange and thus
proves inherently unsettling, Emberson
and her colleagues report online September 3 in Psychological Science.
That uncertainty makes it harder to
focus on one’s own task at hand, be it reading a book, contemplating a work presentation or driving a car, the team proposes.
The new results raise the possibility that drivers operate vehicles poorly
not only while talking on cell phones
( SN: 3/13/10, p. 16) but also when passengers gab on the devices. Further research
will look for such an effect in people
operating driving simulators.
“Drivers should be aware that one’s
attention is drawn away from current
tasks by overhearing someone on a cell
phone, at least in our attention-demanding
lab tasks, and that this effect is beyond
conscious control,” Emberson says.
Overhearing a whole conversation does
not divert listeners’ attention, the investigators assert.
Their findings appear relevant to real-world behaviors, remarks psycholinguist
Benjamin Bergen of the University of
California, San Diego. Individuals who
overhear cell phone chatter often try to
guess what the unheard talker has just
said or thought, contributing to distraction, he proposes.
“I bet people are often trying to fill in
the blanks when they hear half of a conversation,” he says.
Cell phone talkers’ louder-than-usual
voices may also divide others’ attention,
suggests psychologist David Strayer of
the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Emberson’s team had 24 college students perform two attention tasks both
in silence and while hearing each of
three types of speech played through
headphones—two women talking to
each other on cell phones in a dialogue,
a woman talking on a cell phone to an
unheard person in a “halfalogue” and a
woman recapping a cell phone conversation in a monologue.
One attention task involved keeping
a mouse-controlled cursor as close as
possible to a moving dot on a computer
screen. Volunteers tried to maintain focus
on specific visual cues, a skill needed for
driving a car, Emberson says.
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October 9, 2010 | science news | 13