Call of the beguiled
Posted by metaphorical on 27 March 2007
I had always known that overhearing a cellphone call, say on an train, is more distracting than hearing two people talk, and it made sense. What I didn’t know until today was that there was some science to back it up—a 2004 paper makes the case that cellphones are at least as annoying to bystanders as very loud talking and perhaps more so.
Sixty four members of the public were exposed to the same staged conversation either while waiting in a bus station or travelling on a train. Half of the conversations were by mobile phone, so that only one end of the conversation was heard, and half were co present face-to-face conversations. The volume of the conversations was controlled at one of two levels: the actors’ usual speech level and exaggeratedly loud. Following exposure to the conversation participants were approached and asked to give verbal ratings on six scales. Analysis of variance showed that mobile phone conversations were significantly more noticeable and annoying than face-to-face conversations at the same volume when the content of the conversation is controlled. Indeed this effect of medium was as large as the effect of loudness. Various explanations of this effect are explored, with their practical implications.
Unfortunately, Monk and his colleagues don’t provide the final answer; more research is called for. But the problem seems to be that people pay more attention when they hear only half a conversation. It’s apparently easier to tune out the continuous drone of a complete conversation, in which two people take turns speaking, than it is to ignore a person speaking and falling silent in turns.
My guess is, that’s just because we’re less used to it. As we become accustomed to the still-novel rhythm of the cellphone call, it will be less distracting.
Meanwhile, we’re learning more and more about cellphones and how they affect ourselves as well as others. The NY Times had a good article Sunday on multitasking in general, which of course has some consequences for things like cellphone reaction times.
The more we know, the better. Speaking for myself, I use my phone quite a bit either when driving long distances on highways, or short trips I know by rote. I know, again, speaking for myself, that I’m not as safe a driver when I’m engaged in a phone conversation. The question is, how much less safe?
I’m going to quote a little bit more of the article than I need to, because I just like Steve Lohr’s writing here:
March 25, 2007
“Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic,”
By STEVE LOHR
Confident multitaskers of the world, could I have your attention?
Think you can juggle phone calls, e-mail, instant messages and computer work to get more done in a time-starved world? Read on, preferably shutting out the cacophony of digital devices for a while.
Several research reports, both recently published and not yet published, provide evidence of the limits of multitasking. The findings, according to neuroscientists, psychologists and management professors, suggest that many people would be wise to curb their multitasking behavior when working in an office, studying or driving a car.
The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.
They did MRI studies “to pinpoint the bottleneck in the brain and to measure how much efficiency is lost when trying to handle two tasks at once.”
The researchers said that they did not see a delay if the participants were given the tasks one at a time. But the researchers found that response to the second task was delayed by up to a second when the study participants were given the two tasks at about the same time.
Here’s the consequence for using a cellphone while driving:
In many daily tasks, of course, a lost second is unimportant. But one implication of the Vanderbilt research, Mr. Marois said, is that talking on a cellphone while driving a car is dangerous. A one-second delay in response time at 60 miles an hour could be fatal, he noted.
Again, just a guess on my part, but some of that may change as we become more accustomed to talking in public. In particular, there’s a way in which the conversation is drawn into the phone call that isn’t so much a consequence of phone calls as an artifact of how we’re used to conducting them.
I noticed when my step-daughter was growing up and starting to use the phone that her manner was completely different from mine. When I would come into the room while she was on the phone, instead of telling the person to hold on, then, cupping the phone, give me her attention, she did the opposite. She would engage me directly, expecting the person on the phone to hear me and, in effect, be part of a three-way conversation, just as if the friend were there in person.
Juliane’s way of being on the phone, in other words, was a way of being in the world in a way that mine is not. And that—not being in the world when you’re on the phone—is, I suspect, the biggest difference between being on the phone and, say, fiddling with the radio or CD player to find a song you like.
Speaking of the younger generation, Lohr cited another interesting study that looked at age and multitasking, one that suggests we may never get good enough at talking on the phone to make it completely safe while driving. After all, “according to conventional wisdom,” Lohr says, the young “are the most adept multitaskers.”
The younger group did 10 percent better when not interrupted. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a cellphone short-text message or an instant message, the older group matched the younger group in speed and accuracy.
One of the researchers offered a theory about why:
“The older people think more slowly, but they have a faster fluid intelligence, so they are better able to block out interruptions and choose what to focus on.”
but my guess is, the effect is just a consequence of a true bottleneck in cognitive function. A Porsche 911 can’t go any faster than a Ford Focus when they’re both stuck in traffic at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, one of the few situations in which it’s perfectly safe to use a phone in a car.