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Cellphones as a Modern Irritant

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Cellphones as a Modern Irritant

If you have just read the same paragraph 12 times because the person sitting next to you on the bus is chatting on her cellphone, feel free to show her this: scientists have found another piece of evidence that overheard cellphone conversations are far more distracting and annoying than a dialogue between two people nearby.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One, college students who were asked to complete anagrams while a nearby researcher talked on her cellphone were more irritated and distracted — and far more likely to remember the contents of the conversation — than students who worked on the same puzzles while the same conversation was conducted by two people in the room.

The study is the latest in a growing body of research on why cellphones rank so high on the list of modern irritants. Mounting evidence suggests that the habits encouraged by mobile technology — namely, talking in public to someone who is not there — are tailor made for hijacking the cognitive functions of bystanders.

One reason, said Veronica V. Galván, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of San Diego and the lead author of the study, is the brain’s desire to fill in the blanks.

“If you only hear one person speaking, you’re constantly trying to place that part of the conversation in context,” Dr. Galván said. “That’s naturally going to draw your attention away from whatever else you’re trying to do.”

It is also a control thing, Dr. Galván and her colleagues said. When people are trapped next to a one-sided conversation — known nowadays as a “halfalogue” — their anger rises in the same way it does in other situations where they are not free to leave, like waiting for a train.

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