A theoretical physicist named Geoffrey West was studying population growth of various cities when he noticed something weird. Basically, every time a city doubled in population, there was an inevitable 15 percent increase in ... well, everything. The rate of crime, pollution, disease, good stuff like productivity and creativity, and bafflingly specific stuff like the speed at which people walk along sidewalks. Double the citizens, everything went up by almost exactly 15 percent no matter where he looked.
It's weird to think of human behavior as predictable. It's not like criminals read the latest census information, do some quick calculations and put on their murder gloves to go out and fill their quota. But it turns out that a lot of the things that annoy us about daily existence are governed by scientific laws and systems we're not even aware of.
Public Cell Phone Conversations
You're sitting on the train, trying to concentrate on the notebook in which you're composing your latest rock opera, when the guy across from you pulls out his cell phone and starts a conversation: "I know ... Sure I did ... Well, did you try setting it on fire? ... Ha, tell him not on my watch ... No, I said did you try setting it on fire?" Unable to concentrate, you sit in silent rage until he hangs up and you're able to breathe again. And then he starts dialing again. What the fuck is that guy's problem?
Everything we know about morality tells us you would be justified in beating him to death with a tire iron.
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
The real question is why are you so annoyed by him? Take a moment to look around our hypothetical train car. There's the guy behind you trying to teach his girlfriend to pronounce "Doritos" with correct Spanish phonetics. There's the conductor announcing the name of the next stop for the third goddamn time. Why is the guy on the mobile phone the one who's starring in grisly crime scenes in your mind?
Our problem with public cell phone conversations has nothing to do with how cool he thinks he is, or even his stupid voice. It's all in our heads.
Above: Not what we meant.
Science has proven that hearing half a conversation, as you're forced to do when close to a cell phone user, is inherently more distracting to the human brain. In one experiment, people were asked to try to concentrate on a task in total silence, and then while overhearing two people conversing with each other. They performed equally well both times. But when half a conversation was played, performances dropped dramatically. Another study showed that people on public transport recalled more details of a one-sided conversation than a two-sided one, even if they'd been trying to ignore both.