Ring. Ring. Why We Can’t Ignore the Phone

Back to blogging over the holidays. And to get back in the groove for 2008, an interesting “Whydunnit” that was bouncing around my head and the Enquiro office yesterday.

It started as an example I used in today’s “Just Behave” column on Search Engine Land about how the way we interact with our online world might actually be more native to us and how we evolved than reading a book. Online browsing is actually a return to behavior that we’re pretty familiar with. We were born to multi-task.

Driving and Selective Perception

The example was to show how we use selective perception to decide what needs the full attention of our conscious mind, and it was about driving, daydreaming and cell phone use. Here’s an excerpt:

Here’s another example. Ever drive home on a route you take all the time, either from work or your children’s school, and get home only to realize you didn’t really remember driving there? You’ve driven the route so often that it’s worn a path in your brain and you can do it on autopilot. Meanwhile, your mind wanders in a million different directions, thinking about work, what’s for supper, your next vacation and the marks on your daughter’s report card. But all the time, you’re scanning your environment. If a pedestrian steps in front of you, you slam on the brakes. And you did it faster than you could ever rationally think about it. It’s a hereditary hardwired shortcut, straight to your amygdala, the emergency response center of your brain, bypassing your conscious mind.

By the way, while we’re on the subject of driving, if we’re so good at multitasking, why is talking on a cell phone so dangerous when we’re behind the wheel? It’s not because one of our hands is tied up, as we previously thought. Studies have found that even with hands free devices, we’re four times more likely to be in a car accident when talking on a cell phone. This risk is the same as driving while drunk. And it’s all about reaction time. One study found that if you put a 20 year old behind the wheel talking on a cell phone, their reaction time is the same as a 70 year old not talking on a cell phone.

Here’s the reason. It’s one thing to daydream. That happens in a part of our brain that can be instantaneously turned off, when required, to focus on more urgent matters. Day dreaming is like the brain idling. It doesn’t put too much of a cognitive load on the brain. But a conversation puts a much higher load on the brain. You have to focus your attention on what the other person is saying, and the minute we focus one sense on one stimulus, we lose much of our ability to monitor our environment with that sense.

But it’s more than just the act of listening. Carrying on a conversation requires us to process language, to translate what we’re hearing into concepts, and to take our concepts and translate them back into language. This is one of the most demanding tasks our brain has to do. While carrying on a conversation might not seem like much work, it’s moving our brain from slow idle to 5000 RPMs, firing on all cylinders. Which means there’s less capacity there to process emergency stimuli. In practical terms, we’re talking about a handful of milliseconds, as the brain switches tasks, but that difference can be several car lengths when slamming on the brakes. It’s the difference between a head on collision and a near miss.

Calling on the Phone: Much Worse than Being There

While talking about this with my partner, Bill Barnes, he asked an excellent question. Why does talking on a cell phone while driving seem to be more distracting than talking to someone sitting in the passenger seat? A little sleuthing found a study that seems to indicate this may not be the case. A study done in Spain seems to indicate that the cognitive load is the same. But I think there’s more to it than that. I haven’t been able to track down research proving my hypothesis yet, but I did find some interesting tidbits about our relationship with the phone, and how we’re conditioned to respond to it.

First of all, let’s talk about the “phone coma”. This is the state many of us go into when we’re talking on the phone. We become more oblivious to the outside world. The subconscious scanning of the environment that I was talking about in the Just Behave column seems to drop substantially. When you’re talking on the phone, you seem to gaze blindly into space. Think of the people with the Bluetooth headsets in airports, gazing out across the tarmac, lulled into a translike state by the conversation they’re engaged in. I think Bill’s right. I do think there’s a difference between our awareness when we’re talking on the phone versus talking in person.

You can Talk the Talk, But Can You Walk the Walk?

It even becomes more difficult to walk and talk on the phone at the same time. Again, take a few minutes to check this out the next time you go to the airport and see someone walking and talking on their headset. They’re fine as long as they’re going in a straight line and don’t have to look for directional cues, such as which gate they’re at. But the minute they have to think about where they’re going, they either stop and finish their conversation or ask the person on the phone to wait for a minute. We can’t navigate and talk at the same time. The cognitive load of both tasks is just too much. We have to pick one or the other.

Part of this has to do with how we convey information. Studies have found that in a face to face conversation, a surprisingly small amount of the meaning is derived from the actual words used. In fact, it’s less than 10%. The rest of the message is conveyed through body language and tone of voice. In the case of a phone conversation, at least one of these is missing completely, body language, and even tone of voice is less reliable, because the frequencies of the human voice have been processed and modulated in the transmission over the phone. We’re missing at least half of our communication “bandwidth” so we have to pay more attention to get the meaning.

The Difference between “Being” There and “Hearing” There

But even that wouldn’t completely explain the difference between an in person conversation in the car and talking on a cell phone. Here is where I think the difference comes, and again, it goes back to the difference between “being” there and “hearing” there. If you and I are sitting in the car and having a conversation, we’re both monitoring the same cues, because we’re in the same environment. If I’m in the passenger seat, I can immediately stop the conversation when I see your attention is needed elsewhere. Remember where language comes from. It’s an evolution of the grooming instinct, our need to relate to others of our species. Idle conversation between humans is the same to us as chimpanzees picking lice from each other’s heads. Chimpanzees won’t keep grooming if they’re being threatened by a lion. More important things are at hand. The same is true for humans. Idle chit chat stops immediately when there’s a risk of danger. And we pick up those cues in milliseconds.

But if you’re talking on the cell phone, the other person isn’t aware of your environmental cues. If a child runs in front of your car, the person on the other end of the phone just keeps talking. And you don’t have time to ask them to stop. You have a split second. So your brain is struggling, trying to process the conversation at the same time as your trying to get your brain to turn on the emergency response system. The person on the phone is “cueless”, so the distraction is far greater.

Our Pavlovian Response to Ring Tones

And this brings up another point. We have a conditioned response to phones. A phone ringing kicks in neural hardwiring and triggers a Pavlovian response. This explains a number of oddities about our relationship with the phone.

First of all, Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, (a great book, by the way) talks about the fact that we can’t seem to ignore a phone ringing. The reason is association. We associate phone calls with news, either about something good or something bad. Either way, we need to know what it is. There is an unknown there that we’re programmed to need to solve. A phone ringing takes precedence in our mental queue. It goes to the front of the line by kicking in a number of subconscious neural triggers. Have you every tried to keep doing something while the phone is ringing? It’s almost impossible. Even if you manage to ignore the ringing (as when you forget to turn the cell phone off in a public event) the first thing you do is head out to the hall and check your voice mail. It’s not quite Pavlov’s dog’s salivating, but it’s pretty close. I’m not sure this understanding will help the next time you’re waiting at a counter for service and the person on is tied up on the phone, seemingly ignoring you, but give it a shot.

The persuasive nature of the phone gets even more insidious. Here’s an except from an article in the NY Times:

The ear gives unequal weights to certain frequencies, making it particularly sensitive to sounds in the range of 1,000 to 6,000 hertz, scientists say. Babies cry in this range, for example, and the familiar “brrring, brrring” ringtone hits this sweet spot, too. (Simple ringtones are more likely to produce phantom rings than popular music used as a ringtone.)

“Your brain is conditioned to respond to a phone ring just as it is to a baby crying,” Mr. Nokes said.

So, not only are we conditioned to respond. Phone manufacturers make it even more irrestible by tricking our brain into the same conditioned response we have when we hear our children crying. So, if we hear our cell phone ring in the car, the brain immediately starts anticipating something of import. The circuits that divert attention away from other activities kick into action, shifting it to the phone call. The physical act of answering the call is only one small part of it. It’s all the conditioned responses we have to the phone that are the real culprits in the increase of cell-related car accidents.

Everybody Hates a Telemarketer – even Jerry Seinfeld.

One last riff on the persuasive nature of the phone. One of my favorite moments on Seinfeld was when Jerry got a call from a telemarketer and responded:

““I’m sorry, I’m a little tied up now. Give me your home number and I’ll call you back later. Oh! You don’t like being called at home? Well, now you know how I feel.”

Why do we hate telemarketer’s so much? In fact, we so despise this form of marketing, we’ve actually legislated against it. Perhaps you’ve already guessed the answer, based on what I’ve already talked about. When the “Do Not Call” list was formed, the reasons put forward were, “a waste of our time”, “an invasion of our privacy” and “an interruption of family time”. While all valid, they’re not the real reasons. The same things could be said for almost any form of advertising, including TV ads, and we’re certainly not legislating them out of existence. In fact, the amount of time allowed for TV advertising in a typical half hour has increased dramatically over the last 2 decades. No, the reason we hate telemarketers has a much more human root: we feel duped by them.

Telemarketers take advantage of our conditioned responses. When we hear the phone ring, our brain kicks in to prepare us to pay attention, because we’ve been conditioned to expect it’s important. Then, we hear the subtle click of the telerouter and the scripted speech begins. Suddenly, realizing we’ve been tricked, we’re furious. Almost irrationally so. We treat telemarketers in a way we would never treat anyone else. I’m completely guilty of this. I’ll hang up on a telemarketer without a second thought, but I’ll put up with terrible service at a restaurant and usually not even mention it, even when asked. Why? Because we hate to be made fools of, and subconsciously, when we pick up the phone and hear a telemarketer, our brains are telling us that we’re a fool. Which makes us angry. Which causes us to lash out. Flight or fight has kicked in, and fight has won. Still considering a career as a telemarketer? It’s a toss of the dice with millions of years of evolution, and you’ll come up snake eyes every time.

Oh..and Happy New Year!

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