Would talking on your cell phone cause you to have missed this clown? One professor thinks so

Matthew Anderson

Would you expect to notice a unicycling clown if you were walking down the street near one? If you are talking on your cell phone, then you probably wouldn't see the clown. People talking on their cell phones are more than twice as oblivious as those not on their phones, according to a recent study conducted by Western Washington University Psychology Professor Ira Hyman.

In his research, Hyman documented real-world examples of people who were so distracted by their cell phones that they failed to see the bizarre occurrence of a unicycling clown passing them as they walked. The study is published in an upcoming issue of the journal “Applied Cognitive Psychology.”

“If people experience so much difficulty performing the task of walking when on a cell phone, just think of what this means when put into the context of driving safety,” Hyman said. “People should not drive while talking on a cell phone.”

In Hyman’s study, just 25 percent of people talking on their cell phones saw the unicycling clown, whereas more than half of people walking alone, people listening to portable music players and people walking in pairs saw the clown.

“Cell phone use causes people to be oblivious to their surroundings while engaged in even a simple task such as walking,” Hyman said. “Cell phone users walk more slowly, change directions and weave more often and fail to notice interesting and novel objects. The effect appears to be caused by the distraction of a cell phone conversation, because people walking in pairs did not display the same range of problems.”

Another finding of the study, Hyman said, is that a person’s familiarity with his or her environment does not eliminate the effects of cell phone use on navigation.

For more information on this research, contact Ira Hyman, a professor in the WWU Department of Psychology, at (360) 650-3519 or ira.hyman@wwu.edu.

Monday, October 19, 2009 - 9:18am