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One-Sided Conversations

October 14, 2010

Overhearing one end of a cell phone conversation may distract you in ways that a two-way conversation wouldn’t.


Cell phone half-alogues…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Hearing someone else talk on a cell phone can be incredibly distracting. A new report in the journal Psychological Science may explain why. Cornell University psychologist Lauren Emberson and her colleagues played different versions of a recorded cell phone call to people taking a computerized attention test.

LAUREN EMBERSON (Cornell University):
And we find that when people listened to only half the conversation, they perform markedly worse, than when they hear both halves of a conversation.

In fact, hearing the full conversation didn’t impact their performance at all. And the half-conversations were distracting only when they could be clearly understood. As to why, Emberson notes that unpredictable patterns are known to be more distracting than predictable ones. And she suspects that our brains are easily lured into making sense of the one-ended phone calls. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.