That queerest of all the queer things

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Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876.  In 1880, Mark Twain wrote a comic sketch about how strange it is to overhear one end of a telephone conversation.  A century and a quarter later, people have gotten used to the experience with landlines — or at least stopped complaining about it — but we still tend to perceive overheard cell phone conversations in public places as more distracting and annoying than real-life conversations, even when the real-life conversations are just as loud or even louder.

Now there's increasing experimental evidence that phone conversations are not only cognitively more troublesome than in-person conversations for outsiders, they're more difficult for participants as well. One recent study interviewed pedestrians who had just walked along a 375-foot path across an open plaza where a clown on a unicycle was riding around. Only 2 out of 24 cell phone users reported seeing the clown. In comparison, the unicycling clown was reported by 12 out of 21 people involved in real-life conversations as they walked the same path.

The abstract of Ira Hyman et al., "Did You See the Unicycling Clown? Inattentional Blindness while Walking and Talking on a Cell Phone", Applied Cognitive Psychology 2009:

We investigated the effects of divided attention during walking. Individuals were classified based on whether they were walking while talking on a cell phone, listening to an MP3 player, walking without any electronics or walking in a pair. In the first study, we found that cell phone users walked more slowly, changed directions more frequently, and were less likely to acknowledge other people than individuals in the other conditions. In the second study, we found that cell phone users were less likely to notice an unusual activity along their walking route (a unicycling clown). Cell phone usage may cause inattentional blindness even during a simple activity that should require few cognitive resources.

Actually, the conversational pairs in their Experiment 1 seem to have taken longer to cross the square than the cell phone users, and to have stopped more often, though they did less weaving and direction changing:

Here's the clown from Experiment 2:

A description of the method and the numbers of subjects in each category:

Observations were collected of individuals walking along the same diagonal path used in Experiment 1. Observers were positioned at both ends of this path and attempted to interview all individuals who exited Red Square classifiable under any of the same four conditions. We interviewed 151 individuals (67 classified as males, 84 as females; 139 classified as college-age, 10 as older and 2 as unsure). Of these individuals, 78 were single individuals without electronics, 24 were cell phone users, 28 were music player users and 21 were part of a pair (for pairs, observers interviewed the closest individual).

And here's the table of results:

The real-life conversational pairs in fact noticed the clown more often than the unoccupied single pedestrians, perhaps because they walked more slowly and stopped more often, and perhaps because if one participant noticed the clown, he or she pointed it out to the other.

(The overall rates of clown-noticing were fairly low, apparently not because unicycling clowns are routine on the campus of Western Washington University, nor because WWU students are unusually inattentive, but rather because the clown was a bit off to the side of the diagonal path across the plaza where the experiment was conducted.)

As the study's authors observe, there are quite a few alternative explanations for the effect, and more than one of them may be true:

One possible explanation for the effect of cell phone conversations is that they cause a particular drain on attentional resources and thus lead to inattentional blindness. Fougnie and Marois (2007) argued that divided attention tasks that drain central executive processing capacity are more likely to produce inattentional blindness. Similarly, Strayer and Johnston (2001) found that cell phone conversations were particularly disruptive in comparison to listening to books on tape, a radio broadcast, or shadowing using a cell phone. Something about the conversation seems to limit attentional capacity. We, like other researchers, found that having a conversation with a person next to you did not increase inattentional blindness (Crudell et al., 2005; Hunton & Rose, 2005; Strayer & Drews, 2007). Similarly, Klauer et al. (2006) reported that a passenger in the adjacent seat decreased accident rates whereas a cell phone conversation increased accident rates. Strayer and Drews (2007) suggested that in-vehicle conversations are less problematic because the driver and the passenger can more easily coordinate the conversation with the driving demands. Klauer et al. (2006) suggested that two observers increases the odds of noticing important aspects of the driving environment and our finding that pairs were more likely to see the clown is consistent with this point. Of course there are other differences between conversing with someone who is present and someone via a cell phone that may contribute to inattentional blindness. For example, the degraded sound quality of cell phone conversations may require more attentional resources to process both the content and the precise timing of turn-taking. In addition, an absent partner may cause an individual to engage visual processing to imagine the other person. This additional visual interference may increase inattentional blindness.

[And yes, people are quite capable of extraordinary levels of inattentional blindness even when no conversations of any sort are involved.]

[Update — I should add, since I've made this point in other cases, that this is a relatively small study, carried out in a specific social setting, involving a limited sample of subjects. And the fact that the results are consistent with expectations (including mine) is perhaps a reason to be more skeptical, not less. (As Dick Hamming used to say, we should always beware of finding what we're looking for.) Still, I'll take this study as increasing the plausibility of the view that cell phone conversation tends to soak up attentional resources in a way that face-to-face conversation doesn't.]


  1. B.W. said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 1:55 am

    From introspection, I would guess that it's the mental imagery part that is causing the known impairments of cell phone users. When I am on the phone, I imagine not only the other person, but also their environment, what they're doing etc. Mentally, I am not present in the here and now. That is different for people talking to a person that shares the 'here and now', except possibly in very heated conversations where both partners may be engaged in mental time travel (e.g. arguing about the evening before when x did not help y, or both ranting about a lesson at school). Whether that explanation is neurally different from saying that mental imagery creates a dual task situation that drains attentional resources away from visual processing, I don't know… Personally, I tend to daydream a lot anyway, so I tend to miss things. What's the explanation for that? ;)

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 2:19 am

    Aha! When I talk on any kind of phone, I imagine the person I'm talking to, and my mind's eye competes for attention with my eyes in a way that doesn't happen when I'm talking to someone in person. I suspect something like this is the reason that cell-phone conversations in cars are distracting and the answer to people who say that you might as well ban conversations with the passenger.

    (However, I haven't clicked on the link to "extraordinary levels of inattentional blindness even when no conversations of any sort are involved" because I'm already intimately familiar with the phenomenon.)

  3. Jennifer M said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:30 am

    I find it interesting in Table 1 that those using a music player had the shortest crossing time and did the least amount of weaving, and they also had the second highest rate of noticing the clown. I wonder if the lack of distracting auditory input lets the listener be more aware of their visible surroundings and more focused; as for me, I regularly miss people waving at me and trying to get my attention when I'm plugged into my iPod.

    It seems to me that the awkwardness of listening to one half of a telephone conversation, whether on a cell phone or (much less frequently now) a landline, is still less than that of witnessing a conversation someone is having on a Bluetooth, especially when the earpiece isn't visible. You assume that they're having a conversation with someone on the other end of a phone call, but since the device isn't visible, they could always just be conversing aloud with themselves.
    I'm a student at Western, and was pleasantly surprised to see a picture of Red Square here on Language Log. It should be said that although unicycling clowns are not an everyday occurrence on campus, unicyclists are not exactly rare (some students unicycle to school regularly).

  4. Peter Taylor said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 5:11 am

    I have to wonder why they didn't have a video recorder set up so they could see where people were looking (do people on the phone just look at where they're going? Do people in pairs look diagonally across their paths to face their companions? etc) and try to correlate that with the responses.

  5. Faldone said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    I've always felt that a major factor is that we're used to blocking out outside interference from our years of talking on wire-bound landline phones. We're sitting at one central point with screaming kids, booming radios, and numerous other distractions when we're on the phone. This blocking gets transfered to other contexts when we're driving or walking.

  6. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    There's nothing in this study that surprises me at all. If you're in the first car in line at a red light, watch the faces of drivers making a left turn in front of you. Their eyes are completely blank as they miss your car by inches.

    This phenomenon of inattention also appears in the tendency of cell-phone users to discuss intensely personal matters at full volume while surrounded by strangers. Where more research is needed is to find out who so many conversations are with or about "Keith" and whether "Keith" is actually a gynecologist.

  7. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    Whoops, I should have specified "the faces of cell-phone-talking drivers."

  8. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    @Dan: down here in TX in the northern reaches of Dallas I'm afraid that the omission of 'cell-phone-talking' did not make your observation seem any less accurate—in fact I'm downright terrified that it didn't!

  9. majolo said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    In the last quotation, does "shadowing using a cell phone" have a special meaning? Absent other clues, I guess it would be eavesdropping on another call using a cell phone. I searched the paper, and that seems to be the only use of the phrase.

    [(myl) I'd have to check the reference, but in that sort of literature, "shadowing" generally means repeating a stream of speech while listening to it — kind of like simultaneous translation without the translation part. That would be a control that engages speech understanding and speech production, without engaging conversational mechanisms.]

  10. Mark P said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    As you say, some of the possible causes may be true, but as a matter of principle I reject ad-hoc explanations with little or no evidence to support them. What I find more interesting is the lack of difference some researchers have found between automobile-driving cell-phone users with and without hands-free devices. In those cases I question not only the explanations but also the results.

  11. uberVU - social comments said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PhilosophyFeeds: Language Log: That queerest of all the queer things II

  12. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    It's apparent, empirically and experimentally, that a telephone (of any sort?) requires additional focus from the user. What remains a mystery is what the focus is used for. We do seem to know that it takes computing cycles away from attention that should be spent on driving alertness. So all the fuss about cell phones and driving seems to be well intentioned.

    Yet what interests me more is the disapproval cast on those engaged in half-conversation with their cell phones. Surely another's private discussions are not our concern. Miss Manners would be appalled, I'm certain, to know that we would even be aware that someone at the next table was discussing something without a partner of interest to us. How would we even come to know that? Surely our gaze and our ears would not wander away from our own companion(s), would they? Certainly we would not find matters under discussion elsewhere more compelling than the topic being enjoyed by our friend(s), would we? Why are we so incensed that others are using their cell phones rather than talking to their own friends?

    [(myl) I offered a speculative answer to this question here.]

  13. Forrest said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    I thought the square in that photo looked familiar – it's on the corner of Pine and Broadway, in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. The brick work, sculpture, and flat lighting are give-aways.

    If it means anything at all, directly across the street from the clown on a unicycle in the photo, is a sculpture of Jimi Hendrix kneeling while playing a guitar. Up the street stretching to the north is the closest thing Seattle has to Haight-Ashbury. The neighborhood is full of neo-hippies as well as homeless people. I think most people who frequent that part of Seattle have taken up the habit of ignoring strangers, to avoid being hit up for spare change. I wouldn't be surprised if that had even just a little bit to do with the surprisingly (to me) low percent of people in all categories who saw the clown – in other words, would a sterile suburb have had the same result?

  14. Mark P said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

    Mr Fnortner – I think there is anger over cell-phone use in what is considered inappropriate situations that spills over to all situations. I would also like to see an age distribution for cell phone irritation.

  15. Kenny Easwaran said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 11:21 pm

    Forrest – I thought this square was on the campus of Western Washington University, in Bellingham, not Seattle. This at least seems consistent with the brick work and the presence of large public art, though I don't recall seeing that particular sculpture when I walked through the sculpture tour of campus. This is also consistent with the fact that Jennifer M claims to be a current student there and claims that this is there.

  16. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

    Far be it from me to defend obnoxious cell phone users. Mark P has obviously met the same sort of people I have who go through life chatting away on the phone while trying to conduct their affairs with others. This M.O. shifts much of the responsibility for the success of transactions onto the other party. It must be this unreasonableness that generates the animosity towards these people.

    Having read MYL's link in his reply to my post above, I can appreciate the stress unfairly placed on unwitting eavesdroppers. When combined with the accumulated animosity we are already carrying, this is the last straw.

  17. Sue Sims said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 7:20 am

    In the school where I teach (a girls' grammar school, which in the UK means an 11 – 18 age group selected for intelligence*), the Head (=principal) has recently issued an edict prohibiting pupils from listening to MP3 players when working on computers/writing in class on the grounds that it lowers concentration.

    My feeling is that it's actually an advantage, as they are far less likely to chat surreptiously or be otherwise distracted, but I have no experimental results available to try and change the Head's mind. Has any research been published on this? and if not, can anyone suggest an experiment I could set up to see which belief is correct – mine or the Head's?

    *Not that you'd know it…

  18. Rick S said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    Part of what I think is annoying about cell phone (and particularly Bluetooth) users is that, as Mark explained in the linked post, we are forced, at least initially, to analyze and interpret what they are saying on the theory that they are talking to us, yet they themselves are more often than not inattentionally blind to us. Thus, they have distracted our attention while simultaneously ignoring us. This violates a social contract, which seems both rude and arrogant. We incorrectly attribute this to "talking louder than normal" because that's the way such violations have usually occurred in the past. I wonder whether, as time goes on and we get more used to the phenomenon, we might stop perceiving them as being loud.

  19. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    Haha. I dismiss them as demented street people talking to themselves. (Although it would be nice to have an LED on the earpiece that lights to indicate "on" and not "insane".)

  20. Tammy said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    This was an interesting study and I find that it is true in our own family. When someone is on the phone they have tuned out the world somehow. In and person one on one conversation, we are more open to outside influences and not on an autopilot like with a cell phone or ipods. Neat study! :)

  21. Zubon said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

    not on an autopilot like with a cell phone or ipods.
    Please note that people with MP3 players were more likely to spot the clown than those with no devices at all. If you take the anti-cell phone result seriously, you must also consider it a pro-iPod result. Perhaps the just-so story could be that the one sort of audio distraction leaves one more open to visual cues?

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