The unexpected ringing of a cellphone—especially the ones that play a snippet of a popular song—can be more harmful to learning than you might think.
That's what a team of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis claim in a study due to be published in a forthcoming issue of Journal of Environmental Psychology.
For the study, postdoctoral fellow Jill Shelton went undercover in university lecture classes. She programmed her cellphone to go off at an agreed-upon time and let it ring at least 30 seconds before silencing it.
The researchers tested Shelton's classmates later on the information the instructor was imparting when the cellphone rang and compared the results with those of students who had been in uninterrupted classes. They found that the students who had been subjected to the annoying cellphone ring tones were 25 percent less likely to recall the target information—even when the lecturer was just repeating something that had already been covered when the cellphone went off.
Shelton also did a lab experiment in which college-student volunteers were subjected to a variety of ring tones, from the standard sounds that come with the phones to the Louisiana State University fight song. (This earlier experiment was done at LSU, where the fight song has become a popular choice of ring tones.) The ring tone that had the longest-lasting detrimental impact on learning—you guessed it—was the LSU fight song. In repeated trials, though, participants were able to improve their performance even with the fight song playing in their ears.
Shelton thinks the song's familiarity or its personal significance to listeners may have been what enhanced its impact, which means that other popular songs might be just as distracting to learning.
So think twice before programming "Boom Boom Pow" into your cellphone. The study is not
yet published, but you can read a more detailed article about it on Washington University's Web site.
UPDATE: I now have a link for the full study, "The Distracting Effects of a Ringing Cell Phone: An Investigation of the Laboratory and the Classroom Setting." Enjoy.