Everyone hates that cellphone that rings in an inappropriate setting -- a classroom, during a concert or movie, in a church (how about during a wedding?) These calls are not only annoying, a new study has found, they pose the kind of distraction that can impair learning or derail someone's train of thought.
"Nuisance noises have real-life impacts," said Jill Shelton of Washington University in St. Louis, the author of the study, in a news release.
In one study, Shelton posed as a student in a crowded, undergraduate psychology lecture and allowed her cellphone to ring loudly for about 30 seconds. The students exposed to the ringing scored 25% worse on a test of material presented before the distraction. Students tested later scored about 25% worse for recall of content during the distraction even though the same information was covered by the professor just prior to the phone ring and was projected as text in a slide show during the distraction. Students scored even worse when Shelton added to the disturbance by frantically searching her handbag as if attempting to find and silence her phone.
The study, published online in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, also found that cellphones that play a popular song for a ring tone can have an even longer-lasting negative impact on attention. A custom tone that identifies the caller as a particular person, such as mom or the boss, can be especially distracting.
"Depending on how familiar people are with these songs, it could lead to an even worse impairment in their cognitive performance," she said.
The findings raise the question of what other types of everyday disturbances -- such as beeping and buzzing from incoming e-mail -- jar attention and learning processes. But the study showed that, with repeated exposure, students were able to block the distracting effects and reduce the cognitive impairment caused by the noise. Evidence also suggests that being prepared in advance for nuisance noises lessens their impact.
"There's definitely some evidence to suggest that people can become habituated to a distracting noise," she said. "If you're in an office where the phones are just ringing all the time everyday, it may initially be distracting to you, but you will probably get over it."
-- Shari Roan
Photo credit: Washington University