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People have an especially hard time ignoring half a conversation because we can't predict what's coming next.

For the most part, technology and transit make a good team. San Francisco officials recently announced a tool that helps BART riders — especially those planning to bring bikes on board — find the least-crowded subway car. In Chicago, the CTA's real-time bus tracker tool has produced measurable (if modest) ridership gains. New York's MTA recently released a fantastic train-arrival app that saves people time, not to mention bladder pressure.

As it goes with technology, though, some advances bring a bit of the bad along with the good. That will no doubt be the case with last week's announcement that the MTA has expanded wireless cellular service to 30 more subway stations. This is great news for commuters who want to check email on the ride home, and not so great for those standing beside loud cell phone talkers on the platform. As the Times reports, call signals may even improve on the trains themselves:

“If you don’t get reception, that gives you peace of mind,” Leo Bruce, 44, from Maspeth, Queens, said as he waited for a train at 18th Street.

But when it arrived, Mr. Bruce tested the new system, placing a call as the doors closed. “Hey, how you doing, hon?” he shouted into the phone. “You going to be there by 2:30?”

About a dozen passengers turned toward him, displeased, as the train hurtled toward 14th Street.

These passengers certainly aren't alone in their displeasure. There's a great deal of psychological evidence showing that people find cell phone conversations particularly more annoying than general conversations or ambient noise. The best research on the subject, published a few years back [PDF], concluded that these calls are so distracting because our brains expend a lot of energy trying to guess what words will come next:

Because overhearing a cellphone conversation entails access to only half of a dialogue, the speech content is less predictable than that of a full conversation.

For this study of "halfalogues," a research team led by Lauren Emberson of Cornell University brought people into a lab and gave them two computer tasks. In one they had to track a dot moving across the monitor, in the other they had to store four-letter groups in their memories. Meanwhile the researchers played various types of sounds through the speakers: a regular conversation, a cell phone conversation, and a monologue (e.g. a person reading a transcript).

Emberson's team found that, compared to silence, performance on the computer tasks decreased significantly when the halfalogues were played. That wasn't the case with either standard dialogues or monologues. But the researchers still couldn't tell whether it was the content of the cell phone call, or merely the noise, that was distracting. So they repeated their tests with a filtered version of the halfalogue that kept sound levels the same but jumbled the words — a little like hearing a person talk underwater.

When people heard the filtered halfalogues, their performance problems on the computer tasks disappeared, suggesting to the researchers that it's the unpredictability of cell phone conversations — as opposed to simply the sound of them — that annoys the rest of us.

A more recent study, published just a few weeks back, lends clear support to this interpretation. In the new work, researchers found that people who overheard a cell phone conversation unwittingly remembered more words from it, compared to a two-person discussion they also overheard. The results, according to the researchers, suggest that "people are more attentive to cell phone conversations than two-sided conversations."

It's only a matter of time before cell phone use in subways becomes the new normal in American cities. BART has had complete service for several years, the Washington Metro is (ever so slowly) nearing full coverage, and transit authorities in Boston and Chicago are making plans to expand their services, too. New York, meanwhile, expects to wire all remaining stations within the next few years. In other words, the halfalogues have arrived underground. Ah, the problems of progress.

Top image: Pan Xunbin /Shutterstock

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