Distracting cell phones have familiar ring

WASHINGTON-ST. LOUIS (US)—While the dangers of talking on a cell phone when driving are well documented, new research suggests that a ringing cell phone in a classroom can be equally distracting, even to the point of being an impairment—especially if the ringtone is a recognizable song.

“In any setting where people are trying to acquire knowledge and trying to retain that information in some way, a distraction that may just seem like a common annoyance to people may have a really disruptive effect on their later retention of that information,” says Jill Shelton, a postdoctoral psychology fellow at Washington University in St. Louis and lead author of a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

The study includes an experiment in which Shelton poses as a student seated in the middle of a crowded undergraduate psychology lecture and allows a cell phone in her handbag to continue ringing loudly for about 30 seconds.

Students tested later scored about 25 percent worse for recall of course content presented during the distraction, even though the same information was covered by the professor just prior to the phone ring and projected as text in a slide show shown throughout 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 ringing phone.

“Many of us consider a cell phone ringing in a public place to be an annoying disruption, but this study confirms that these nuisance noises also have real-life impacts,” Shelton says, who conducted the study with colleagues at Louisiana State University. “These seemingly innocuous events are not only a distraction, but they have a real influence on learning.”

Further, the study reports that popular songs used as ringtones have an even longer-lasting negative impact on attention.

In this phase of the experiment, students in a laboratory were tested on simple word-recognition tasks while exposed to a range of auditory distractions, including irrelevant tones, standard cell phone rings and ringtones that included parts of an instrumental version of the LSU fight song. The fight song was being played incessantly around campus at the time as LSU football made its fall 2007 run to the national college championship.

“When we played the fight song as part of our lab experiments, the distraction factor lasted longer,” Shelton says. “It slowed down their decision-making performance for a longer time than even a standard ringtone.”

When popular songs are used as personal ringtones, Shelton adds, they will be even more distracting. “Depending on how familiar people are with these songs, it could lead to an even worse impairment in their cognitive performance.”

Findings suggest the potential for distraction is greater still if the ringtone has special meaning or personal relevance, such as a custom tone that identifies a call as coming from a parent, close friend, or boss at work.

In repeated trials of the experiment, students were eventually able to block the distracting effects of both standard and song-based cell phone rings, gradually reducing cognitive impairment caused by them.

“There’s definitely some evidence to suggest that people can become habituated to a distracting noise,” Shelton says. “If you’re in an office where the phones are just ringing all the time every day, it may initially be distracting to you, but you will probably get over it.”

In another experiment, students who were warned of possible distractions were able to recover more quickly when the distractions occurred.

“Our experiments suggest that there is a benefit to prior knowledge in how we respond to nuisance noises,” Shelton explains. “It doesn’t mean you won’t experience a disruption to what you were doing for that brief period, but your cognitive system can adjust and get back on task fairly quickly.”

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