Veronica Galvan: USD research on distracting cellphone conversations gains international attention

Veronica Galvan: USD research on distracting cellphone conversations gains international attention

They’ve been dubbed “halfalogues”—those pesky one-sided cellphone conversations that we find oh-so-irritating, yet impossible to ignore. Assistant Professor of Psychology Veronica Galvan, PhD, and her team of undergraduate researchers recently published their study on the distracting nature of cellphone chatter. They found that participants who overheard a one-sided conversation were more distracted and annoyed than participants who heard both sides of a dialogue. The study has been reported in more than 30 countries.

Your recent research on the distracting nature of cellphone "halfalogues" has gained a great deal of attention. Why does this topic resonate with so many people?
This study did seem to catch people's attention. Our research team of undergraduates was pleasantly surprised to see the study reported in 33 countries on six continents. I think people were interested in the study because cellphone use is so pervasive, and most people find overheard cellphone conversations annoying. Also, our study was the first study to use a naturalistic situation to show that overhearing a cellphone conversation is a uniquely intrusive and memorable event. So although people often report that cellphone conversations are annoying; here was an experimental study that confirmed their suspicions.

What inspired the study? Did you have a particularly irritating experience?
I have to confess that my attention wanders when others are speaking on cellphones. I was curious whether this was just my perception or if these specific types of conversation really affect attention and/or memory. We started this study quite a while ago (it took a lot of teamwork amongst a large group of undergraduates), and during this time I had an anecdotal experience that seemed to confirm that we were on the right track. While I was clothes shopping, a person next to me was on her cellphone and said "’so and so' was in jail last night." I could not hear the other half of the conversation, but it did get my attention!

Also, more recently, I was that annoying person on the cellphone. I was in the grocery store speaking to my cousin via cellphone, telling him that our paper was being released the next day. There was a lady behind me that gave a loud "Hello?" and "I nearly ran into you!" I was so engrossed in my conversation that I did not notice I was blocking her path in the grocery aisle. I wanted to tell her "No worries; I understand. People on cellphones can be annoying."

How were student researchers involved with the study?
I wish I could convey how important our team of undergraduates has been. They were essential to the study; it could not have been conducted without them. Undergraduates helped design the study, created the conversation, helped create the attention and memory tasks, worked as teams to conduct numerous trials, did data entry and analysis, and helped present our data. There were many undergraduates that devoted themselves to this project and the follow-up studies. Together, we have tested 500+ participants, one at a time, with the help of 51 research assistants since 2007 for four cellphone projects. Our team is pleased to have created a research design that is unique to the literature and to have found consistent cellphone effects on bystanders. And I am grateful that one of the undergraduates, Rosa Vessal, spent her summer writing the journal article with me. She has worked incredibly hard and it has been wonderful to see her name in the news articles.

What are the possible implications of this research? Is there more to explore with regards to this topic? Do you plan a follow-up study?
It may be a bit early to speculate about the implications of this research since this is only the second study on the topic (the first study used repeated exposure to the conversation). Unlike the first study, we did not find a deficit in performance during the conversation so I don’t think performance on all tasks would be impaired in bystanders. I do think some tasks would be susceptible because some attention is captured by the overheard conversation vs. a typical two-sided conversation. We're conducting follow-up studies, which may define what particular types of activities are impaired by overhearing one-sided conversations. What I think is intriguing is that it’s possible that performance could be even greater in an environment with less one-sided conversations. In some situations, this is not feasible; people will need to communicate with co-workers and clients via telephones or it would be impractical to implement because some work places are inherently noisy. But if it was simple to implement and didn’t hamper communication, it might be a good idea to have some work areas in which typical conversations were promoted while one-sided phone calls were limited.

- Anne Malinoski '11