Cellphone conversations we overhear really bug us, a Cornell University study shows

A new study suggests our brains simply don't like these one-sided chats.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

The cellphone conversations going on around us — in the grocery store, mall, airport, elevator, on the bus, etc. — are by now ubiquitous. But they still feel intrusive. A new study suggests our brains simply don’t like these one-sided chats.

Researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests to gauge people’s reactions when exposed to four background noise settings: silence, a monologue, a conversation between two people and half a conversation (called a halfalogue). The study participants were seated at computers and asked to perform various cognitive tests while exposed to one of the three sounds or silence.

Hearing the halfalogue was the only background noise that distracted the study participants and lowered their scores on the cognitive tests.

For some reason, our brains are unable to tune out half a conversation. Researchers believe this is because we can’t predict the speech pattern of a halfalogue the way we can with a monologue or two-way conversation — making it harder to ignore.


Besides the mere annoyance factor, halfalogues can result in impaired performance in some settings, such as in a car. “These results suggest that a driver’s attention can be impaired by a passenger’s cellphone conversation,” the authors wrote.

The study also provides more evidence that we understand speech, in part, by anticipating what someone will say.

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.