Your Ringtone Might Be Making You Dumb

The next time you hear strains of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” emanating from a cell phone one cube over in your office, take note of how it affects your brain. Do you feel like your thought processes are temporarily on hold? According to a new study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, ringing cell phones are so distracting, they actually reduce our ability to remember information and slow our capacity to get back on task once the ringing stops.

THE DETAILS: Researchers broke their experiment down into a few different parts. In the first test, they had college students in a lab do computer exercises, for which they were asked to identify items that flashed across a screen as quickly as possible. During those tests, a cell phone would ring repeatedly, either with a standard ring, a generic tone, or a recognizable song (in this case, the university’s fight song). Each time the phone rang, researchers noticed that the students’ reaction times to the computer tests slowed down. However, students who heard the ring or the generic tone recovered more quickly and were less affected by subsequent cell phone interruptions than students who heard the university fight song.

In the second experiment, one of the researchers sat in a classroom while a professor gave a lecture, at the end of which students were given a test. During the lecture, the researcher allowed her phone to ring for 30 seconds. A second group was tested as well but didn’t have the cell phone interruption. The test scores revealed that the first group scored 25 percent worse than the nonphone group on questions related to material presented while the phone was ringing.

WHAT IT MEANS: A cell phone ringing in the middle of your next meeting is more than just annoying. It could inhibit your and your coworkers’ ability to think or remember important information. “Cell phone rings do make you respond more slowly,” says lead author Jill Shelton, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s a short-lived effect,” she adds. But tiny interruptions can add up, something anyone who’s sat through a long meeting with frequent cell phone interruptions will agree with.

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