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Why Cellphone Conversations are so Distracting

By Wesley Fenlon

When we can only hear half a conversation, we can't resist filling in the rest.

You're sitting on the train, trying to read as you head into work. Right next to you, a man stands talking on his cellphone. By the time you get off the train, you've only read a page of the book, but you know everything about the conversation that was happening right next to you--or rather, you know as much as you could deduce from listening in to one side of the discussion. According to the New York Times, this is a common scenario. While we're often able to tune out conversations between two people happening right next to us, a one-sided cell phone conversation is, seemingly, almost impossible to ignore.

The Times reports that a recent psychological study into cellphone distractions reinforces the notion that phones are far more distracting than regular conversations: "One reason, said Veronica V. Galván, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of San Diego and the lead author of the study, is the brain’s desire to fill in the blanks.

'If you only hear one person speaking, you’re constantly trying to place that part of the conversation in context,' Dr. Galván said. 'That’s naturally going to draw your attention away from whatever else you’re trying to do.' "

It's so easy for us to tune into annoying phone conversations, we often think they're louder than they actually are.

The study placed 149 students amidst distracting conversations while trying to solve anagrams. The students who listened to the cellphone "halfalogues" were still able to complete the work, but rated themselves higher on a distractibility scale and remembered more of the conversation.

Our brain's focus on surprises and its attempts to fill in the gaps don't just make us more susceptible to distraction, either. It's so easy for us to tune into annoying phone conversations, we often think they're louder than they actually are. Another study, held in 2004, found that commuters exposed to both cellphone and face-to-face conversations thought the phone talks were louder, even when they weren't.

Distracting as those cellphone conversations may be, the Times cites a recent survey that shows Americans, at least, are slowly adapting to them. In 2006, 82 percent of Americans were occasionally annoyed by one-sided jabbering; in 2012, only 74 percent said the same. It's a small drop, but it could mean that our brains eventually get sick of guessing at the other side of the conversation.

Or maybe we're all wearing headphones.