Annoying Cell Phones

October 18, 2004

Do cell phones get on your nerves? Does it bother you to hear people talking on their cell phones? If you are like most people, you get irritated when you have to listen to someone talking on their cell phone. What makes listening to cell phone conversations so annoying? Psychologists at the University of York (York, UK) designed an experiment to answer this question.

The experiment took place in either the Leeds bus station or on a train traveling between the cities of York and Sheffield. Two female actors rehearsed a one-minute script about a holiday and a surprise party. After the actors felt comfortable with the script and their ability to maintain a consistent volume of their conversation, they were placed in either the bus station or on the train.

In the "face-to-face condition," both actors carried out their conversation in the presence of someone else (a study subject). In the "mobile phone condition," only one actor sat near the study subject. So, in the face-to-face condition, the subject saw and heard both people involved with the conversation. In the mobile phone condition, the subject saw and heard only one side of the conversation. After the conversations, one of the actors approached the subjects, told them that she was conducting an experiment, and asked if they could answer some questions about the conversation.

Compared with face-to-face conversations, cell phone conversations were always rated as being more noticeable. Even when the actors spoke with the same loudness, the subjects still felt as if the cell phone conversations were more noticeable. Cell phone conversations also made people feel as if they listened to the conversation more than they did during face-to-face conversations. The most "intrusive" conversation was a loud cell phone conversation on a train.

These results indicate that listening to cell phone conversations is more annoying than listening to two people talk face-to-face. The researchers suggest that this annoyance is caused by hearing only one side of the cell phone conversation. It is possible that hearing only one person in the conversation alters the attention of the listener. This shift in attention somehow bothers the listener. The authors of the study propose that to test this theory, a listener's annoyance to a cell phone conversation (one-sided) should be compared to that of listening to a walkie-talkie conversation (two-sided; when both sides of the conversation can be heard).

What is your prediction for this experiment? Do you think annoyance caused by the walkie-talkie conversation will be less, the same or more than that caused by a face-to-face conversation? How would it compare to that caused by a cell phone conversation?

Reference and further information:

  1. Monk, A., Carroll, J., Parker, S. and Blythe, M. Why are mobile phones annoying? Beh. Info. Technol., 23:33-41, 2004.

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