60-Second Science

It's Not Just You: Hearing Half a Phone Call Is Annoying

Because the brain anticipates dialogue in a conversation, overheard cell phone calls really are more annoying than an overheard dialogue. Karen Hopkin reports


Well, did you see the thing about why people on cell phones are so annoying?


I know, right? Because you only hear...


Oohp, I gotta go. Sorry. I know that was irritating. Because a recent study in the journal Psychological Science [Lauren Emberson, Michael Goldstein et al] shows that overhearing only one half of a cell phone conversation is much more distracting than listening to two people chat.

When we follow a full conversation, we tend to fill in the blanks…anticipating what each of the speakers might say. But when we’re limited to just one side of a two-sided dialogue—or “halfalogue”—our brains have to work harder to guess what’s coming next. That unpredictability grabs our attention, which makes these partial exchanges hard to tune out.

Psychologists had volunteers perform tasks that required concentration. And while the subjects worked, they were treated to either a dialogue or halfalogue the scientists had previously recorded. The results: hearing just the “tete” in a cell phone tete-a-tete leads to poor performance in other tasks.

And that suggests that [phone rings]

Can you excuse me? Hello? Yah, I’m just recording it now.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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