Why are Background Telephone Conversations Distracting?

Marsh, John Everett orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-9494-1287, Ljung, Robert, Jahncke, Helena, MacCutcheon, Douglas, Pausch, Florian, Ball, Linden orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-5099-0124 and Vachon, François (2018) Why are Background Telephone Conversations Distracting? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24 (2). pp. 222-235. ISSN 1076-898X

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000170


Telephone conversation is ubiquitous within the office setting. Overhearing a telephone conversation—whereby only one of the two speakers is heard—is subjectively more annoying and objectively more distracting than overhearing a full conversation. The present study sought to determine whether this "halfalogue" effect is attributable to unexpected offsets and onsets within the background speech (acoustic unexpectedness) or to the tendency to predict the unheard part of the conversation (semantic [un]predictability), and whether these effects can be shielded against through top-down cognitive control. In Experiment 1, participants performed an office-related task in quiet or in the presence of halfalogue and dialogue
background speech. Irrelevant speech was either meaningful or meaningless speech. The halfalogue effect was only present for the meaningful speech condition. Experiment 2 addressed whether higher task-engagement could shield against the halfalogue effect by manipulating the font of the to-be-read material. While the halfalogue effect was found with an easy-to-read font (fluent text), the use of a difficult-to-read font (disfluent text) eliminated the effect. The halfalogue effect is thus attributable to the semantic (un)predictability, not the acoustic unexpectedness, of background telephone conversation and can be prevented by simple means such as increasing the level of engagement required by the focal task.

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