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Cell Phone Ringtones Can Impair Retention

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Cell phone distraction

Distraction from talking on a cell phone is well studied. New research also shows that ringtones can be so distracting they can interfere with information retention. Scientists tested their theory in a classroom, finding that people exposed to cell phone ringtones had lower scores on tests after hearing ringtones in the classroom, even though the information had just been presented. The results show that cell phone ringtones impair retention.

According to lead researcher Jill Shelton, a postdoctoral psychology fellow in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, "In any setting where people are trying to acquire knowledge and trying to retain that information in some way, a distraction that may just seem like a common annoyance to people may have a really disruptive effect on their later retention of that information." For the study, Dr. Shelton sat in a classroom and allowed her own cell phone to ring loudly for thirty seconds.

The material presented prior to, and during the distraction was not retained by the students, evidenced by lower test scores. Student scores were even lower when Dr. Shelton reached into her purse as though frantically trying to subdue the ringing.

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Using popular songs for ringtones is even worse when it comes to contributing to distraction that can impair retention of information. “Depending on how familiar people are with these songs, it could lead to an even worse impairment in their cognitive performance," explains Dr. Shelton.

Shelton’s study, conducted at LSU, also included students as to perform simple word-recognition tasks while exposed to a and parts of the 2007 LSU fight song, combined with normal cell phone rings, and other tones. Dr. Shelton said the familiar LSU fight song…”slowed down their decision-making performance for a longer time than even a standard ringtone."

The study shows that cell phone ringtones can at least temporarily impair retention of information. The good news is most people can learn to tune out the distractions of cells phone ringtones, beeps and buzzing.

Shelton’s study also showed that if we expect these distractions, we could pay less attention to ringtones and other noise, improving cognition and retention. Students who were told to expect cell phone ringtones were able to get back in focus more quickly than when the interruption was unexpected.