The magazine for Western Washington University

Did you see that clown?

If not, hang up

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You’d think a clown on a unicycle would be hard to miss. But not, apparently, while you’re chatting on a cell phone.

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 through Red Square. The study is published in an upcoming issue of the journal “Applied Cognitive Psychology.”

“Just think of what this means when put into the context of driving safety,” Hyman says. “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 in his yellow and purple clown suit, red nose and floppy feet. However, more than half of people walking alone saw him, as did people listening to portable music players or walking in pairs.

“Cell phone use causes people to be oblivious to their surroundings while engaged in even a simple task such as walking,” Hyman says. “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 says, is that a person’s familiarity with the environment does not eliminate the effects of cell phone use on navigation.