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Science: Stop Talking On Cell Phones In Public

A new psychological study reveals that cell phone talk is more distracting than regular background conversations. And more appealing to eavesdroppers.

Posted on March 18, 2013, at 1:44 p.m. ET

Junji Kurokawa / AP

People speaking on cell phones in public are not just incredibly irritating but, according to a new study, more distracting than regular, two-way background conversations.

A team of researchers at the University of California San Diego recruited 164 students to partake in an anagram quiz, subjecting half of them to a one-way conversation (a scripted phone call, basically) and the other to a two-way conversation (akin to two people talking by the water cooler).

According to the report, published in PLoS ONE journal last Thursday, participants subjected to the one-way conversation reported a "significantly higher" distraction level than those overhearing the two-way talk.

Both groups did well on the anagram test, but those who overheard the one-sided talk remembered much more of that conversation, suggesting they were less able to tune it out. "The researchers concluded cell phone conversations are more distracting than a typical dialogue because the content of a cell phone conversation is less predictable," according to the report. In other words, your public cell phone conversation isn't just more distracting — the people around you are hanging on your every word.

"There's a lot of research that shows that [mental] multitasking isn't really possible. That your brain actually has to switch back and forth between listening in and doing something else, rather than doing both tasks at the same time," says lead author Veronica Galvan.