Just the ring of a cell phone can pose a dangerous distraction, especially when it happens in a classroom setting or includes a familiar song as a ringtone, says a new study.
"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 and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
The study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology 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 exposed to a briefly ringing cell phone scored 25 percent worse on a test of material presented before the distraction.
Volunteers 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.
"Many of us consider a cell phone ringing in a public place to be an annoying disruption, but this study confirms that these nuisance noises also have real-life impacts," Shelton said.
"These seemingly innocuous events are not only a distraction, but they have a real influence on learning," the expert added.
Titled "The distracting effects of a ringing cell phone: An investigation of the laboratory and the classroom setting," the study was conducted at Louisiana State University.
The study found that unexpected exposure to snippets of a popular song, such as those often used as ringtones, can have an even-longer-lasting negative impact on attention.
Thus, people who use popular songs as a personal ringtone may be increasing the odds their cell phone rings will be more distracting.