Students were asked to perform a simple task on the computer -- making decisions on whether the symbols they saw on the screen were words or not words. They were not told there would be distractions, but there were. In fact, noises (including cell phone rings) interrupted the task about 20 times in each trial.
The result? "All participants who heard a sound were initially distracted, no matter what the sound was. And they performed much more slowly on their task," Shelton said.
However, those who heard the irrelevant noise were able to get back to their task much faster than people hearing either one of the two cell phone rings. And those hearing the LSU fight song ringtone took the longest time to shake off the mental distraction.
Why might distraction be worse for a cell phone ring than for more "irrelevant" noise?
"We think it's because cell phones are more prevalent in the everyday environment. People are used to responding to cell phones," Shelton postulated. "They have this automatic reaction to it that they can't control and this is particularly true if we're talking about a cell phone ringtone that is personally relevant to them."
In all cases, though, Shelton said, "while these sounds were indeed disruptive, they were brief and people could recover, at least in a lab setting."
But next, Shelton pretended to be a student in an undergraduate class on child psychology.
At a pre-designated time, Shelton's cell phone rang for about 30 seconds while she made no move to answer or silence it, prompting a number of displeased looks from her lecture-hall mates.
Immediately afterwards, students performed 25 percent worse on a pop quiz containing questions pertaining to the information that had been presented (both orally and visually) while the cell phone was ringi
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