Written by Abigail Koetting
Cell phones often pose as distractions to our every day lives, especially when we are trying to focus on completing a task and a notification goes off to distract us. Cell phone notifications are meant to get our attention, so their tone will break our focus on purpose. Most ringtones have a frequency that is most sensitive to human ears, similar to a horn, fire alert, or bicycle bell- all of which are noises that get our attention quickly because of their acoustic variability (Roer, Bell, & Buchner, 2014). Whether it’s an incoming phone call, Snapchat, or Facebook notification, simply the sound of the tone causes us to attention-switch between our mobile devices and the task at hand.
Advertised frequently are the dangers in using our mobile devices while driving. Driving requires our attention and focus, especially in more dangerous conditions such as snow or fog. However, what about cell phones in the classroom? How do ringing phones affect our focus and short-term memory? Roer, Bell and Buchner (2014) studied fifty-one college students to determine how the ringing of a cell phone affects one’s short-term memory, and if others’ cell phone ringtones affect an individual more than their own cell phone ringing. Part one deals with determining if the cell phone tone’s interference with short-term memory lessens with more occurrences. Part two then deals with determining which ringtones are more disruptive, ours or another person’s?
In this study for each trial, eight digits were showed consecutively and randomly on a computer screen to participants for them to remember. Auditory distractors (a participant’s own ringtone or one from a partner, ringing along with office noise such as talking, footsteps, or typing noises) were played over headphones while the participant was remembering the list of numbers.
Each participant completed two different blocks of trials. The first block, the training block, had eight quiet trials and eight irrelevant sound trials. During the irrelevant sound trials, a different set of office noises were played. Then the second block, the experimental block, had eight trails in each of the three auditory conditions. The first auditory condition was quiet with two irrelevant sound conditions, the second auditory condition was the partner’s ringtone, and the third auditory condition was the participant’s own ringtone.
Experimenters noted the current ringtones of the participants’ phones. Two participants were paired together to be each other’s partner. Participants were not matched with each other if they had identical ringtones, so that the acoustic differences could be accounted for when each other’s ringtones played.
Since this test was looking at short-term memory, the recall test was given right after the list of numbers was shown. A succession of eight question marks were displayed on the computer screen, and participants had to use the keyboard to enter the numbers in the same order they saw them in before; there was an option for ‘I don’t know’. When scoring, the participant only got the answer correct if they typed the same number in the same exact serial position from the sequence.
Results showed that the participant’s own ringtone was just as disruptive as the partner’s ringtone, both affecting serial recall quite drastically. Additionally, participants were more likely to become accustomed to less regular sounds such as office noise and talking rather than more regular sounds. According to Roer, Bell and Buchner (2014), more regular sounds, like a cell phone ringing, may be due to non-attentional processes. On the contrary, irregular sounds cause attentional capture. As the individual is subjected to these irregular sounds more frequently, the attentional capture weakens over time. This is why the office noise and talking could be tuned out more easily, and the cell phone ringing could not. The office noise and talking were irregular noises, causing the attentional capture, which weakens with more exposure. The cell phone ringing though, always disrupts ongoing activities because of their ability to capture individuals’ attention and grasp their focus.
In conclusion, it is evident that cell phones take our focus away from the task at hand as soon as a notification is heard. We do not become accustomed to these alerts the more we are exposed to them, as we might with typical office noise in the background each day. Our cell phones are just as attention grabbing as someone else’s, so it is important to keep your cell phone on silent when performing tasks that require high attention and focus.
Roer JP, Bell R, & Buchner A (2014) Please silence your cell phone: Your ringtone captures
other people’s attention. Noise & Health, 16(68):34-39.