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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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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."

Evolving technology may even offer at least a partial solution, Emberson said.

"People are using their phones more and more for texting, rather than talking, so while this will probably always be relevant it might actually become less of a problem. But maybe I'm just an optimist."

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