Why is it so annoying to hear a person chatting away in public on their mobile phone? One possibility examined in a new study is that the sound is particularly distracting, more so than a nearby conversation between two people who are both physically present.

Veronica Galván and her colleagues had 164 undergrads take part in what they thought was an investigation into the links between anagram solving performance and reading comprehension. While the students attempted to solve 15 easy and 15 tricky anagrams, they were subjected to the surprise sound of a nearby student chatting away on their mobile phone, or to the sound of two students chatting to each other.

Afterwards the participants rated the overheard phone call as more noticeable and irritating, and yet they performed just as well on the anagram task, solving as many easy and difficult puzzles as those participants who were exposed to a conversation between two nearby students. This represents a failure to replicate the main result in a 2010 study, in which one half of a conversation was found to be more disruptive to performance than a two-sided conversation. 

Galván's team also tested the participants' memory for the words uttered in the overheard conversations, and the participants who overheard the mobile phone call did better. The researchers said this suggests there's something particularly "attention grabbing" about an overheard phone call. However, this isn't necessarily the case - the participants who overheard the two-sided conversation between two students were exposed to far more words. "It's possible that participants who overheard the one-sided conversation performed better on the recognition task because of experimental confounds," the researchers admitted.

The results confirm prior surveys suggesting that overheard mobile phone calls are perceived to be unusually annoying, but they don't support the idea that this is because they're super distracting. "We did expect to see a difference in anagram performance between conditions and did not," the researchers said.

It's a useful piece of realistic research that suggests we should look elsewhere for why overheard phone calls are judged so negatively. Perhaps many of us endorse an implicit rule that says it's rude to talk on your phone in public, and that's why we find it so irritating.

Although the main result was that an overheard mobile phone call harmed anagram performance no more than an overheard two-way conversation, you wouldn't know it from much of the media coverage this paper has attracted. "Hold the line: Overheard phone calls more distracting than room full of people chatting" was the Independent's take. "It's Harder to Tune Out Cell Phone Talkers Than Regular Human Conversations" said The Atlantic. Whether it's Facebook turning us into friendless hermits or TV turning our eyes square, it seems the mainstream media can't resist another chance to indulge their technophobia, even when the study doesn't quite hit the mark.

Galván, V., Vessal, R., and Golley, M. (2013). The Effects of Cell Phone Conversations on the Attention and Memory of Bystanders PLoS ONE, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0058579

Source: BPS Research Digest 
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest