A flurry of recent research has documented that talking on a cell phone poses a dangerous distraction for drivers and others whose attention should be focused elsewhere. Now, a new study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology finds that just the ring of a cell phone may be equally distracting, especially when it comes in a classroom setting or includes a familiar song as a ringtone.
"In any setting where people are trying to acquire knowledge and trying to retain that information in some way, a distraction that may just seem like a common annoyance to people may have a really disruptive effect on their later retention of that information," said the study's lead author, Jill Shelton, a postdoctoral psychology fellow in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
The study includes an experiment in which Shelton poses as a student seated in the middle of a crowded undergraduate psychology lecture and allows a cell phone in her handbag to continue ringing loudly for about 30 seconds.
Students tested later scored about 25 percent worse for recall of course content presented during the distraction, even though the same information was covered by the professor just prior to the phone ring and projected as text in a slide show shown throughout the distraction. Students scored even worse when Shelton added to the disturbance by frantically searching her handbag as if attempting to find and silence her ringing phone.