Why is it irritating to hear one half of a mobile conversation?

Some research just published in Psychological Science suggests we find it harder to screen out someone’s conversation when we can only hear one side. The team at Cornell University got teams to do a number of conversation tasks while listening to both two-sided and one-sided conversations. They made more errors when listening to one-sided conversations. So, if you’ve ever felt irritated by the conversation on the tube home about someone’s plans to have Marks and Spencer lasagne and a bottle of wine in front of a DVD when they get home, it’s because your brain is trying to fill in the missing part of the conversation. Even if it’s as mundane as whether the DVD should be Mama Mia or Sex in the City…

What the research does not offer any explanation for is this natural┬ácuriosity that the brain has for “information” just beyond its reach. My feeling is that it’s the same impulse that makes us want to check each email as it comes in. It’s “gossip” which in our ancestral environment might have been a crucial nugget of information about something fundamental to our survival. Our brain has not yet caught up with the idea that it might just be about someone else’s frozen lasagne.

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