September 25, 2012

Peer Review: Lauren Emberson Grad Finds Why Cell Phone Conversations Annoy Us

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Lauren Emberson, grad, studies the distractions caused by cell phone conversations or “halfalogues” on outside listeners.

Is it okay to ask someone in a coffee shop chatting on a cell phone to leave? Maybe so. That’s because according to Lauren Emberson, grad, psychology, cell phone conversations can impair the cognitive performance of people around them. In her research, Emberson has found that overhearing a cell phone conversation is far more distracting than overhearing two people in conversation.

“It’s significantly distracting and it’s actually affecting others’ ability to do what they want to do,” Emberson said.

She found through her research that when people overhear a cell phone conversations it is like they are only hearing half of a conversation — a “halfalogue” as she called it.

Emberson said that while people are in conversation, the brain of the person doing the listening is not in the moment. Rather, it is trying to predict what the other person is going to say next. Since outside listeners can only hear half of the conversation, the content of halfalogues is much less predictable than normal two-person conversations.

The unpredictability of halfalogues involuntarily engages outside listeners’ brain and lodges their attention.

“It means you’re less able to tune the conversation out. Your brain is reflexively focusing on it, orientating towards it and possibly processing it more deeply and that is what makes it more distracting,” Emberson said.

In conducting her research, Emberson had Cornell undergraduates participate in various attention-demanding tasks while listening to different types of conversations, either halfalogues or full conversations. Participants performed worse when they heard one half of a conversation compared to both halves of the conversation or silence.

Emberson also performed a controlled study, in which the same speech files were used, but the speech was filtered so that participants could not hear the content of the speech. She said that these sounds where similar to hearing someone speaking underwater or the indiscernible sounds made by adults in Charlie Brown. In this case, Emberson found that the halfalogue was not distracting. She and her team concluded that in order for people to be distracted by halfalogues, they have to understand the speech used in the conversation.

From her results, which were first published in Psychological Science in 2010, Emberson and her co-authors Prof. Michael Goldstein, psychology, have received a lot of media attention.

“People were very interested in this result. It confirms a lot of people’s suspicions that cell phones are distracting, and irritating in their environment,” said Emberson.

According to Emberson, it’s not that people talk more loudly on cell phones; halfalogues are distracting because they tap into basic cognitive mechanisms that are used constantly in daily life. In general, unpredictable elements in the environment cause more brain activity and attract more attention from perceptual, learning and memory systems within the brain, she said.

Emberson and her team are now testing the effects that overhearing cell phone conversations have on driving performance. She is looking at replicating the effect in a driving simulator to see if overhearing cell phone conversations has an effect on how people break or stay in the lanes while on the road. She said that at this point there is not enough sufficient data to support this hypothesis.

Her recommendation is that drivers should be weary of passengers talking on their cell phones because they may be adding extra distractions.

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Original Author: Raquel Sghiatti

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