Why an Overheard Phone Conversation Is so Incredibly Distracting

If you've ever sat next to a stranger on the phone while you're reading a book or overheard a coworker take a personal call while you're finishing a project, you know how distracting it can be. Research suggests that overhearing one-sided phone conversations, or "halfalogues," is actually more distracting than hearing the whole conversation — and that has important implications for the office.

"He Said That?!"

To prepare for the study they published in a 2010 issue of Psychological Science, researchers recorded two college students having a phone conversation, then recorded each student's monologue summary of the conversation after it happened. Then, the study began: They asked 24 undergraduate students to perform a task that involved tracking a moving dot on a computer screen with a cursor, and another that had them hit a button every time they saw a certain series of four letters. These tasks were chosen for their similarity to driving: the first mimicked the concentration needed to stay in your lane, the second was similar to responding to traffic lights.

As they worked on these tasks, the students heard various clips from the phone conversations — either just one side of the conversation (a "halfalogue," as the researchers called it), both sides (a dialogue), or the summary monologues. The results? The dialogue and summary clips had no effect on their performance, but when they heard the halfalogue, the volunteers' performance significantly decreased.

Hanging on Your Every Word

Why is that the case? As Scientific American 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." Halfalogues are less predictable, and less predictable speech begs us to pay attention. Our brains are actually wired against us — we must tune in. So the next time you're taking a call, it might be a good idea to find a quiet room to talk. Your coworkers will thank you.

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Written by Anna Todd June 27, 2017

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