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Jun. 9 2010 - 3:28 pm | 322 views | 1 recommendation | 3 comments

The perils of the ‘halfalogue’

“Class”

“Uh-huh”

“Seven”

(Laughing)

“That’s what she said!”

“No, not that way”

“Yeah”

“So you’ll”

“So you”

“So snacks and”

“All right”

“All right”

“And beer”

That’s a snippet of conversation I overheard on my morning bus ride today. A young woman was chatting on her cell phone, and even though she wasn’t especially loud or animated, I found it very distracting. All I wanted to do was read the sports pages, but the fractured dialogue made it very difficult to concentrate.

That’s not a literal transcript obviously, but you get the idea. You’ve no doubt heard similar bits of chatter recently, now that cell phones are ubiquitous in public places. Nobody expects quiet on a public bus, but for some reason I find such cell phone chatter even more of an intrusion than the usual hubbub of a daily commute.

New research suggests that I may be on to something, and hints at why these cell phone conversations may be especially annoying. Indeed, Cornell University psychologist Lauren Emberson has coined a new word—“halfalogue”—to capture the special nature of overheard cell-phone conversation. Her idea is that it’s not the actual spoken words that are most distracting, but rather the unheard half of the dialogue. The human mind can’t stand not knowing the whole story, and is compelled to fill it in, and that act of imagination depletes the attention needed for reading about last night’s ball game.

That’s the theory in any case, which Emberson and her colleagues* decided to test in the laboratory. They recorded actual conversations between college roommates, and then used this recorded speech to make tapes of both regular two-person chats and one-sided halfalogues. In addition, after the conversation, they had one of the roommates summarize the conversation out loud, creating a monologue. So they ended up with three recordings of different kinds of speech one might hear on a commuter bus.

Then they sat a group of volunteers at computer screens and had them do two difficult cognitive tasks. In one task, they had to track a moving dot with a cursor, as it moved randomly around the screen. In the second task, they had to remember four letters, and respond rapidly if one of those four letters appeared on-screen, ignoring any other letters. So both tasks required concentration, but one tapped more into agility and the other into short-term memory and self-control.

Some did these tasks while listening to a monologue, others while listening to a dialogue, and still others while hearing a halfalogue. The results? As reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, merely listening to the halfalogue seriously undermined the volunteers’ performance on both cognitive tasks. By contrast, neither the monologue nor the dialogue had this deleterious effect—even though these types of conversation actually contained more potentially distracting sound. The scientists conclude that it is the unpredictability of the halfalogue—the missing half of the story—that makes it so irresistible that it interferes with thinking.

Forget my bus commute. Maybe I’m just being petty. But the researchers chose these two cognitive tasks for a reason—to simulate the real-life demands of driving. The visual task is meant to measure the kind of vigilance needed to stay in a traffic lane, for example, while the reaction-time task taps into the kind of attention required to observe and obey traffic signals. In other words, it’s possible that a driver’s concentration might be impaired by simply overhearing a cell-phone conversation. Maybe even a bus driver’s.

*Michael Goldstein of Cornell, Gary Lupyan of the University of Pennsylvania, and Michael Spivey of the University of California at Merced


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  1. collapse expand

    This is only ‘half’ the story. The single aspect that separates humans from all other creatures on this planet – higher level reasoning (the ability for spoken language) – is dying, in spite of the efforts to breathe sustaining life into a myriad of geo-political, socio-economic, and world power/control/conflict ills.
    If we made an honest … See Moreassessment at the decline in positive and effective social interaction resulting from technological gadgetry ironically created in an attempt to bring communication to a higher and more advanced level of perfection, we have no choice but to be brutally honest with ourselves. Admit to the realization that, despite its shiny and portable exterior, we are actually moving farther away from the very basic and natural forms of human communication as it was originally intended when mankind uttered his first ‘ugs’ to his fellow cave companion.
    All of this wisdom communicated, by the way, courtesy of some of that technology that allows us to engage in intercourse with another human. It’s unfortunate that you can neither ’see’ nor ‘hear’ the frustration and disillusionment I am experiencing at this moment. Perhaps you can simply picture it through these words. Good luck…

  2. collapse expand

    I think this research is not quite reliable, because the researchers have not bothered about trying the languages that the volunteers did not understand. I often take a train from China to Hong Kong. While talking to my wife in Russian or just reading something, I cannot avoid overhearing a lot of halfalogues in English, Mandarine and Cantonese. Of which Cantonese is the one I do not understand. But I found the annoying/not-annoying ratio roughly the same for each language, which makes me think I do not care that much about what they are talking about or what the whole story is. I admit, subconsciously (maybe sometimes consciously) I do a little, but this is not likely to be a decisive irritation factor. I think more crucial are extralinguistic ones, stemming out of how people treat the space around them. The most irritating is unexpectedness, i.e. that nobody knows when your counterpart says “over” and you begin/resume your part of the conversation, or burst into tears, or break into laughter. I guess the researches would get the same result if they made such a halfalogue of an initially whole musical composition. And I am sure the results will be different if you simply muffle the sound (so easy) or make music resume not so unexpectedly. As for phone conversations in public, those who manage to encase themselves in a kind of shell (I believe I am one of those good guys) are not irritants to the others.

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    I've been a Washington, DC-based science writer for many years, specializing in psychology and human behavior. I currently write a blog for the Association for Psychological Science called "We're Only Human," and am also a regular contributor to Newsweek.com and Scientific American Mind. Crown will be publishing my book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, in September. I am an old-school journalist embracing the world of new media. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. I believe that every news story--whether it's about money or politics or crime or love or health-- is in large part about psychology and the quirks of the human mind. When I am not writing, I am hanging out at Westside Club, riding my bicycle, listening to music and/or cooking for family and friends.

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    For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit my “We’re Only Human” blog. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at the website Newsweek.com.