Recently in the news, a (not yet published?) study by Lauren Emberson and MIchael Goldstein, on why "halfalogues" are so annoying. Thus "Eavesdropping a waste of energy", ABC Science:
Ever wonder why overhearing a phone conversation is so annoying? American researchers think they have found the answer.
Whether it is the office, on a train or in a car, only hearing half of a conversation drains more attention and concentration than when overhearing two people talking, according to scientists at Cornell University.
"We have less control to move away our attention from half a conversation, or 'halfalogue', than when listening to a dialogue," says Lauren Emberson, a co-author of the study that will be published in the journal Psychological Science.
"Since halfalogues really are more distracting and you can't tune them out, this could explain why people are irritated," she says.
Or in the LA Times:
Researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests to gauge people's reactions when exposed to four background noise settings: silence, a monologue, a conversation between two people and half a conversation (called a halfalogue). The study participants were seated at computers and asked to perform various cognitive tests while exposed to one of the three sounds or silence.
The study showed that hearing the halfalogue was the only background noise that distracted the study participants and lowered their scores on the cognitive tests. For some reason, our brains are unable to tune out half a conversation. Researchers believe this is because we can't predict the speech pattern of a halfalogue the way we can with a monologue or two-way conversation — making it harder to ignore. […]
"We believe this finding helps reveal how we understand language in conversation," the lead author of the study, Lauren Emberson, said in a news release. "We actively predict what the person is going to say next and this reduces the difficulty of language comprehension."
But regular LL readers read it here first:
"Mind-reading fatigue", 11/23/2003
"Mind-reading experiments at the University of York", 4/13/2004
And regular readers of Mark Twain have suspected it since 1880, four years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone:
"That queerest of all the queer things in the world", 3/25/2004
Seriously, this sounds like an excellent study, though it would be nice if they made it available for readers before pitching it to the media.
[Update — Lauren Emberson, the lead author of the study, wrote:
I agree that it is frustrating to have all this press about the finding but not to have the paper available. For some reason, Cornell decided to send out their Press Release rather early. In hindsight, we should have explicitly asked them to wait until the paper was available or until we can post it on a site for easy access. However, we are permitted to send the paper to "research colleagues on an individual basis", so I've taken the liberty of attaching the uncorrected proof to this email.
I'll comment further, in another post, when I have a little more time. Meanwhile, the Cornell University press release: "Overheard cell phone conversations: Less speech equals more distraction".
And some more of the resulting press coverage: "Cellphone conversations we overhear really bug us, a Cornell University study shows", LA Times; "Why overhearing mobile phone conversations is so annoying", The Telegraph; "Other People's Cell Phone Conversations Really Are Annoying", Business Week; "Why hearing half a cellphone conversation is annoying", USA Today; "Cornell researchers: Yes, cell phone yappers are annoying", Washington Post; "Be kind: text, don’t call", The Independent; "Study shows why overhearing cell phone calls bugs us so much", Examiner; "Science Explains: Why Overheard Cell Phone Conversations Are So Annoying", Discover Magazine; "'Halfalogues' drain listeners' attention: That's why cellphone conversations are annoying", The Vancouver Sun (Reuters).]