Why other people’s cell conversations make you stabby

Kim LaCapria - Author

Jun. 15 2013, Updated 10:23 p.m. ET

I must admit, I’ve always thought people who complain about cell users in public were just being whiny.

As it turns out, researchers have found that hearing half of a conversation had by others on their cell phones is more irritating than just listening to other people’s banal in-person conversations. The researchers at Cornell have even come up with an annoying portmanteau to describe the irritation, dubbing them “halfalogues.” Here comes the science:

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“When you hear half of a conversation, you get less information and you can’t predict as well,” Lauren Emberson, a co-author of the study, said in an interview with Reuters. “It requires more attention.

“Since halfalogues really are more distracting and you can’t tune them out, this could explain why people are irritated,” she said.

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The researchers studied students who tried to perform basic tasks while other people yapped. Conversations and monologues (like one person recounting an earlier conversation) didn’t hamper their concentration significantly. Half a conversation, however, jacked up the number of errors students made while doing tasks.

The findings initially surprised researchers, because one might think that less sound distraction overall (as overheard in a one-sided conversation) would be less distracting. But it actually counters the processes we’ve evolved to process information. University of York Psychology professor Gerry Altman explains:

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“There is increasing research in a whole range of areas to do with human behavior that shows our ability to predict what’s going to come next is fundamental to both our mental and physical functioning,” Altmann said. “Much of the behavior we engage in is, in fact, very predictable.”

Altman likened hearing half a phone conversation to the difference between walking on a smooth sidewalk to an uneven, rock-strewn path. One doesn’t require much attention. The other, which is unpredictable, requires more attention. An overheard cell phone conversation is different in that much of the process is subconscious, he added.

“With half a phone conversation, you’re only getting a snapshot, so you can’t predict the future, which is what the brain has evolved to do,” Altmann said.

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The study recommends similar research be done on the impact of other people’s cell phone conversations on drivers.


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