Psychological Science has a brilliantly conceived study that explains why overhearing someone talk on a mobile phone is so much more annoying than simply overhearing two people in conversation.
It turns out that a one-sided conversation (brilliantly named a ‘half-a-logue’) draws in more of our mental resources because the information is less predictable – like being fed a series of verbal cliff-hangers.
Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Less Speech Is More Distracting.
Psychol Sci. 2010 Sep 3. [Epub ahead of print]
Emberson LL, Lupyan G, Goldstein MH, Spivey MJ.
Why are people more irritated by nearby cell-phone conversations than by conversations between two people who are physically present? Overhearing someone on a cell phone means hearing only half of a conversation-a “halfalogue.” We show that merely overhearing a halfalogue results in decreased performance on cognitive tasks designed to reflect the attentional demands of daily activities. By contrast, overhearing both sides of a cell-phone conversation or a monologue does not result in decreased performance. This may be because the content of a halfalogue is less predictable than both sides of a conversation. In a second experiment, we controlled for differences in acoustic factors between these types of overheard speech, establishing that it is the unpredictable informational content of halfalogues that results in distraction. Thus, we provide a cognitive explanation for why overheard cell-phone conversations are especially irritating: Less-predictable speech results in more distraction for a listener engaged in other tasks.
Link to PubMed entry for study.