“That’s what she said!”
“No, not that way”
“So snacks and”
That’s a snippet of conversation I overheard on my morning bus ride today. A young woman was chatting on her cell phone, and even though she wasn’t especially loud or animated, I found it very distracting. All I wanted to do was read the sports pages, but the fractured dialogue made it very difficult to concentrate.
That’s not a literal transcript obviously, but you get the idea. You’ve no doubt heard similar bits of chatter recently, now that cell phones are ubiquitous in public places. Nobody expects quiet on a public bus, but for some reason I find such cell phone chatter even more of an intrusion than the usual hubbub of a daily commute.
New research suggests that I may be on to something, and hints at why these cell phone conversations may be especially annoying. Indeed, Cornell University psychologist Lauren Emberson has coined a new word—“halfalogue”—to capture the special nature of overheard cell-phone conversation. Her idea is that it’s not the actual spoken words that are most distracting, but rather the unheard half of the dialogue. The human mind can’t stand not knowing the whole story, and is compelled to fill it in, and that act of imagination depletes the attention needed for reading about last night’s ball game.
That’s the theory in any case, which Emberson and her colleagues* decided to test in the laboratory. They recorded actual conversations between college roommates, and then used this recorded speech to make tapes of both regular two-person chats and one-sided halfalogues. In addition, after the conversation, they had one of the roommates summarize the conversation out loud, creating a monologue. So they ended up with three recordings of different kinds of speech one might hear on a commuter bus.
Then they sat a group of volunteers at computer screens and had them do two difficult cognitive tasks. In one task, they had to track a moving dot with a cursor, as it moved randomly around the screen. In the second task, they had to remember four letters, and respond rapidly if one of those four letters appeared on-screen, ignoring any other letters. So both tasks required concentration, but one tapped more into agility and the other into short-term memory and self-control.
Some did these tasks while listening to a monologue, others while listening to a dialogue, and still others while hearing a halfalogue. The results? As reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, merely listening to the halfalogue seriously undermined the volunteers’ performance on both cognitive tasks. By contrast, neither the monologue nor the dialogue had this deleterious effect—even though these types of conversation actually contained more potentially distracting sound. The scientists conclude that it is the unpredictability of the halfalogue—the missing half of the story—that makes it so irresistible that it interferes with thinking.
Forget my bus commute. Maybe I’m just being petty. But the researchers chose these two cognitive tasks for a reason—to simulate the real-life demands of driving. The visual task is meant to measure the kind of vigilance needed to stay in a traffic lane, for example, while the reaction-time task taps into the kind of attention required to observe and obey traffic signals. In other words, it’s possible that a driver’s concentration might be impaired by simply overhearing a cell-phone conversation. Maybe even a bus driver’s.
*Michael Goldstein of Cornell, Gary Lupyan of the University of Pennsylvania, and Michael Spivey of the University of California at Merced