Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 15, Issue 6, pp 1135–1140 | Cite as

Telephone conversation impairs sustained visual attention via a central bottleneck

  • Melina A. KunarEmail author
  • Randall Carter
  • Michael Cohen
  • Todd S. Horowitz
Brief Reports


Recent research has shown that holding telephone conversations disrupts one’s driving ability. We asked whether this effect could be attributed to a visual attention impairment. In Experiment 1, participants conversed on a telephone or listened to a narrative while engaged in multiple object tracking (MOT), a task requiring sustained visual attention. We found that MOT was disrupted in the telephone conversation condition, relative to single-task MOT performance, but that listening to a narrative had no effect. In Experiment 2, we asked which component of conversation might be interfering with MOT performance. We replicated the conversation and single-task conditions of Experiment 1 and added two conditions in which participants heard a sequence of words over a telephone. In the shadowing condition, participants simply repeated each word in the sequence. In the generation condition, participants were asked to generate a new word based on each word in the sequence. Word generation interfered with MOT performance, but shadowing did not. The data indicate that telephone conversation disrupts attention at a central stage, the act of generating verbal stimuli, rather than at a peripheral stage, such as listening or speaking.


Visual Attention Psychological Refractory Period Inattentional Blindness Telephone Conversation Multiple Object Tracking 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Melina A. Kunar
    • 1
    Email author
  • Randall Carter
    • 2
  • Michael Cohen
    • 3
  • Todd S. Horowitz
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WarwickCoventryEngland
  2. 2.Colgate UniversityHamilton
  3. 3.Brigham and Women’s HospitalBoston
  4. 4.Harvard Medical SchoolBoston

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