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Hearing Just One Half of a Conversation Is Really, Really Annoying

"Yep." "Yep." "Sure, okay." "5?" "Oh no she di..." "What?" "Oh man that's crazy!"

Talking on a cell phone makes it hard for a person to walk or drive: the rate of accidents for talk-drivers is about the same as for drunk drivers, and, according to a recent study, “pedestrians talking on cell phones have impaired visual attention while crossing the street to such an extent that most pedestrians on cell phones did not see a clown riding on a unicycle nearby.” But talking on a cell does boost some skills—like your skill at being really, really annoying to everyone around you.

According to new research, people who overheard only one half of a cell phone conversation were more distracted by and better tuned-in to the conversation than someone who eavesdropped on a face-to-face chat between two people. The people being tested weren’t asked to eavesdrop; they were actually set up with a dummy experiment to work with anagrams. The one- or two-sided conversations—the true test—just “happened” to take place nearby.

The new research fits in with a previous study released in 2010, which found that one-sided conversations are more distracting because our minds race trying to fill in the blanks on the other side of the chat, guessing what the unheard voice might be saying. and described by Scientific American‘s Ferris Jabr explains:

The less information we glean from a conversation, the harder our brains work to make sense of what we hear and the more difficult it is to stop listening.

The scientists working on the new study, says Wired‘s Brandon Keim, couldn’t find any evidence that the increased distraction actually made the people any worse at the anagram challenge they were trying to solve. What they forgot to test, apparently, was how much the test-takers wanted to stab pens into the eyes of the inconsiderate gabbers nattering on nearby.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Your Cell Phone Could Soon Become Part of a Massive Earthquake Detection System
Coming Soon: A Natural History of the Cell Phone
Facebook Snuck Into the World of Basic Cell Phones And Took Over

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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