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Health & Balance

Hate Overhearing Cell Phone Calls? This May Be Why

Study found working people were more distracted by one-sided versus two-sided conversations
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Conversations were similar in length and were overheard by the participants just once, as they struggled to compete the word task. When the conversations ceased, the students were asked to complete memory recall tests, as well as distraction questionnaires.

While all the participants fared comparably well on the tasks, one-sided cellphone conversations were deemed to be "significantly" more distracting than two-sided conversations. Attention seemed to stray more to the one-sided calls, since people who had overheard a one-sided cellphone conversation were more able to recall what had been said versus those who had overheard a two-party exchange.

According to the researchers, people appear to be less able to tune out cellphone conversations compared to two-person exchanges. This supports notions that overheard cellphone jabber might negatively affect a person's ability to concentrate and focus, they said.

Galvan said it remains unclear exactly why this is so.

"We didn't study why cellphone conversations are more distracting," she noted. "But there's a lot of research that shows that [mental] multitasking isn't really possible. That your brain actually has to switch back and forth between listening in and doing something else, rather than doing both tasks at the same time."

"And it also could be a question of control," Galvan added. "Bystanders to these conversations lack any control over whether someone in public answers their phone and shares personal information the bystander doesn't really want to hear. And that lack of control could be stressful. Of course that could be true of a two-way conversation too. So we'll need more research to try and figure this out."

For her part, Lauren Emberson, the lead author of the 2012 study and now a postdoctoral associate in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, said the findings were "not surprising."

"I think it's important to know that this is not about people eavesdropping," she said. "Our brains are just naturally drawn to things we know less about that are informationally rich and spark our curiosity. It really is beyond people's control."

Her advice? "I think this work speaks to etiquette," she said. As "people become more aware of the issue, there will be more and more pressure for people not to make calls in a public space where people can't escape."

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