By Emily Main
The next time you hear strains of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” emanating from a cell phone one cube over in your office, take note of how it affects your brain. Do you feel like your thought processes are temporarily on hold? According to a new study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, ringing cell phones are so distracting, they actually reduce our ability to remember information and slow our capacity to get back on task once the ringing stops.
THE DETAILS: Researchers broke their experiment down into a few different parts. In the first test, they had college students in a lab do computer exercises, for which they were asked to identify items that flashed across a screen as quickly as possible. During those tests, a cell phone would ring repeatedly, either with a standard ring, a generic tone, or a recognizable song (in this case, the university’s fight song). Each time the phone rang, researchers noticed that the students’ reaction times to the computer tests slowed down. However, students who heard the ring or the generic tone recovered more quickly and were less affected by subsequent cell phone interruptions than students who heard the university fight song.
In the second experiment, one of the researchers sat in a classroom while a professor gave a lecture, at the end of which students were given a test. During the lecture, the researcher allowed her phone to ring for 30 seconds. A second group was tested as well but didn’t have the cell phone interruption. The test scores revealed that the first group scored 25 percent worse than the nonphone group on questions related to material presented while the phone was ringing.
WHAT IT MEANS: A cell phone ringing in the middle of your next meeting is more than just annoying. It could inhibit your and your coworkers’ ability to think or remember important information. “Cell phone rings do make you respond more slowly,” says lead author Jill Shelton, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s a short-lived effect,” she adds. But tiny interruptions can add up, something anyone who’s sat through a long meeting with frequent cell phone interruptions will agree with.
Try not to tax anyone’s brainpower by following these ring-tone tips:
• Bid adieu to Beyoncé. At least on your phone. Familiar, popular tunes seem to command more attention. “Those song ring tones are particularly distracting to people,” says Shelton. “I hate to say that, because don’t we all love them? Maybe it’s because we can’t keep ourselves from wanting to listen.” If you can’t shut off the ringer, switch it to one of the boring, single-tone rings that came with the phone.
• Send out a warning signal. If you’re heading into a meeting and expecting a call that you don’t want to miss, let other people know that your phone might ring and interrupt your conversations. “People recover from distraction more quickly when they know it’s coming,” Shelton notes.
• Turn ringers off on the road. This is largely precautionary, as Shelton says that they’d have to conduct a separate study to see how much a ringing cell phone would affect your attention while driving. However, “in two different settings, our experiments showed people trying to pay attention to something in particular, and the sound of the cell phone ring disrupted their ability to do that successfully,” she says. A ringing phone wouldn’t distract you as much as a conversation while driving, she adds, but it could pose enough of a distraction to slow your reaction time at a critical moment.
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