Eavesdropping on One-Way Conversations Is Like Being a Sleazy Detective in Your Very Own, Super-Irritating Noir Film


If you’ve ever found yourself grinding your molars because the person sitting next to you in a coffee shop was gabbing away on a cellphone about the previous night’s bout of food poisoning from a vending machine chili dog, you no doubt wished that you had laser eyes so you could melt that person into a puddle of sticky (and quiet) goo. That’s because, according to the results of a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLos One, people tend to find the mystery of a one-sided conversation to be a rage-blinding distraction.

That, as the Los Angeles Times, points out, is what distinguishes cellphone chatter from the mildly annoying face-to-face conversation eavesdropping most urban humans have become accustomed to. When we overhear a conversation between two people, our brains have an easier time of tuning it out and letting us concentrate on more important things, like that Cougar Town spec script we’ve been working on for six-months, or our leisurely perusal of delightful Neil deGrasse Tyson gifs.

A one-sided conversation, however, presents our overstimulated brains with a nerve-rattling mystery: what the fuck is that asshole shouting into his cellphone about? Hearing only one part of a conversation is like staring into someone else’s grocery basket, spotting Benadryl, duct tape, and shaving cream, and trying to figure out whether that stranger, fed up with her relentless allergy to pet dander, has finally decided to shave her roommate’s cat. Such speculation can drive a person crazy, obliterating the ability to perform relatively simple tasks like reading an editorial or solving a word jumble.

Those are some of the tasks researchers at the University of San Diego had 149 unwitting undergraduates perform. Little did the undergrads know, however, that researchers would besiege their pulpy young brains with background conversations. Some of those background conversations were face-to-face gabfests between insider undergrads. The tête-à-têtes proved less distracting than the researchers had originally anticipated. The cellphone conversations, however, proved monumentally annoying, and, according to some of the study participants, surprising. UCSD neuroscientist Veronica Galvan and her colleagues wrote,

Participants who overheard the one-sided conversation were more surprised that the conversation took place, and rated the conversation as more noticeable and distracting than those who overheard the two-sided conversation.
They were also more likely to rate the content and volume of the conversation as annoying.

Researchers were surprised that two-sided conversations didn’t significantly impede the subjects’ progress in their word-unjumbling endeavors, but suggested that the puzzles may not have been difficult enough to really allow a subject’s mind to wander. A one-sided phone conversation, though, frustrated any sort of puzzle-solving effort. After subjects got over their incredulity at listening to someone engage in a frivolous phone call, the nagging mystery of that call still got under their skin, infecting them like a dame’s cheap French perfume. They wondered who this mystery caller was and what she really knew about Randolph Waters getting “wasted” the night before, and decided to head down to Chinatown for some answers…

Why we can’t help eavesdropping on cellphone conversations [LA Times]

Image via Everett Collection/ Shutterstock.

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