April 13, 2004

Mind reading experiments at the University of York

Last fall, I wrote about why public cell phone conversations are annoying, and speculated that "[t]he louder a conversation is, the more intrusive and annoying it is if you don't care to listen in. The thing is, though, a given cell phone conversation seems much more intrusive and annoying than an equally loud live conversation." Yesterday, Jakob Nielson reported a study by Andrew Monk and others from the University of York in the UK that confirms this speculation:

The researchers staged one-minute conversations in front of unsuspecting commuters who were either riding a train or waiting for a bus. In half the cases, two actors conversed face-to-face while seated next to a potential test participant. In the other half, a single actor talked on a mobile phone while seated next to a potential participant.

Furthermore, the actors conducted half of the conversations at a normal loudness level, whereas the other half were exaggeratedly loud (as measured on a volume meter). The actual content and duration of the conversations were the same in all conditions.

On average, the bystanders found the extra-loud conversations more annoying than the regular-volume ones (2.7 vs. 1.7 on a scale of 5), but they also found the cell phone conversations more annoying than the face-to-face ones (2.8 vs. 1.6). The cell phone effect was bigger than the volume effect. (Andrew Monk, Jenni Carroll, Sarah Parker, and Mark Blythe: "Why are Mobile Phones Annoying?" Behaviour and Information Technology, vol. 23, no. 1, 2004, pp. 33-41.)

The annoyance levels seem pretty low all around -- I guess it's that famous British tolerance.

I also suggested an explanation for the effect, namely that "public cell phone users are annoying because mind-reading is hard work". In a technical sense of "mind-reading", of course. I even speculated on the neurological mechanisms:

When you're sitting in a restaurant or a railroad car, hearing one side of a cell phone conversation, you can't help yourself from trying to fill in the blanks. And after a few seconds of this, your paracingulate medial prefrontal cortex is throbbing like a stubbed toe.

Unfortunately, the York group did not do fMRI scans.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 13, 2004 05:01 PM