Overheard cell-phone conversations: when less speech is more distracting

Psychol Sci. 2010 Oct;21(10):1383-8. doi: 10.1177/0956797610382126. Epub 2010 Sep 3.


Why are people more irritated by nearby cell-phone conversations than by conversations between two people who are physically present? Overhearing someone on a cell phone means hearing only half of a conversation--a "halfalogue." We show that merely overhearing a halfalogue results in decreased performance on cognitive tasks designed to reflect the attentional demands of daily activities. By contrast, overhearing both sides of a cell-phone conversation or a monologue does not result in decreased performance. This may be because the content of a halfalogue is less predictable than both sides of a conversation. In a second experiment, we controlled for differences in acoustic factors between these types of overheard speech, establishing that it is the unpredictable informational content of halfalogues that results in distraction. Thus, we provide a cognitive explanation for why overheard cell-phone conversations are especially irritating: Less-predictable speech results in more distraction for a listener engaged in other tasks.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attention*
  • Cell Phone*
  • Choice Behavior
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Motion Perception*
  • Orientation*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Psychomotor Performance*
  • Reaction Time
  • Social Environment*
  • Speech Perception*
  • Young Adult