Your cell phone rings. You go to answer it, but there's no one there. Curiously, there's no missed call, either. You realize after a moment that you mistook a bird chirping for your cell phone's ring. What's weird is that this isn't the first time this has happened to you. You're probably not insane -- instead, you are suffering from what's come to be called ringxiety.
It's not surprising that in the increasingly wireless and connected world, humanity would begin to suffer techno-neuroses. Electronic gadgets have become a part of the everyday lives of people worldwide. Ringxiety is among the first of these new neuroses to emerge, along with Internet addiction and the "crackberry" phenomenon -- a person's compulsive urge to use and check his BlackBerry wireless device. While crackberry addiction is a compulsive behavior, ringxiety may be a result of that and similar compulsions.
Ringxiety, first coined by psychologist David Laramie, is exactly what it sounds like: confusing the sound of a cell phone ringing with a sound similar to it. Since there's no harm done, aside from a bit of annoyance -- especially if a person struggles to locate his phone -- most people seem to regard ringxiety as a curiosity or a fact of wireless life. The exact origin of this hallucination has yet to be exactly pinned down, however.
Some researchers think that ringxiety stems from a constant state of readiness that could develop in cell phone users. Before the advent of wireless phones, no one expected a call while driving in the car, shopping at the grocery store or dancing at a nightclub. With cell phones, though, there's a potential for a call to come through at any moment. Because of this, it's possible that our brains are conditioned to expect a call constantly, and when a person hears a tone that reminds him of his cell phone ringing, he will believe that's the case.
Others believe that ringxiety -- or in this case, phantom ringing -- simply stems from confusion due to the frequency of most stock cell phone ringtones and the location of our ears. Most standard cell ringtones play at a frequency of around 1,000 hertz. Humans are particularly attuned to pick up on sounds at this range, especially if they're single-toned, like many ring tones. But because people have ears on either side of their heads, it's difficult for them to pinpoint the source of a sound, particularly at this frequency -- for example, from a phone or from a bird outside. To some, this explains the phenomenon of phantom ringing. This doesn't hold true for multi-tonal rings, however, such as an MP3 of a popular song.
Those who opt to set the phone to "vibrate" rather than "ring" aren't off the hook either. Even stranger than phantom ringing is the phantom vibration phenomenon. This is also a part of the ringxiety that David Laramie studied, although fewer ideas about its origins have been suggested. It's similar to phantom ringing, but phantom vibration is a physical rather than an auditory hallucination.
It's also similar to another, well-documented phenomenon called phantom limb syndrome. In this medically recognized condition, amputees -- people who've had limbs removed -- report feeling pain in limbs that are no longer attached to their bodies. Is it possible that people have become as attached to their cell phones as they are to their own arms and legs?
Though ringxiety is little more than an annoyance, it may say a lot about the minds of those who experience it. Read on to explore the psychology behind wireless society.
Ringxiety and its Psycho-social Consequences
If cell phones and BlackBerries have become so popular that some people imagine they are having incoming calls, is it possible the users have become too dependent on these devices? What other psychological effects do these devices have on us?
HowStuffWorks is not the first to ask this question. In his study on ringxiety, David Laramie found a link between increased cell phone use and phantom ring/vibration experiences. He found that two-thirds of the people he surveyed for the study said they'd experienced ringxiety. Those who experienced the phenomenon the most -- 67 percent of the survey population -- also used the phone the most. They used up more minutes, had larger phone bills, tended to be younger and also sent more text messages [source: Newswise].
The fact that the people who spent more time using their phone experienced ringxiety more often comes as little surprise. But there is another aspect of Laramie's study that may be more revealing. He found that people who preferred to text others rather than call tended to be more lonely and socially anxious.
Does that mean the way a person uses his phone can predict his personality type? Possibly. Another study shows that phones may directly affect a person's personality. Specifically, wireless devices can make us less happy.
In 2005, psychologist Noelle Chesley conducted a study of 1,367 men and women who work, have families and use cell phones. She found an increase in stress and a decrease in family satisfaction among both men and women who use cell phones. Chesley believes this is due to what she and other researchers call a blurring of the traditional lines between work and family life.
This blurring occurs when role boundary permeability takes place. Under this condition, a person's role in one part of their life merges with another role. For example, a woman might get a call at work by one of her kids looking for the TV remote at home. In this case, the woman's role of mother has infiltrated her separate role as employee.
The spillover from family life into work is much more likely to happen for women than for men, according to Chesley's study. But men and women alike suffer similar amounts of spillover from work into family life, and the study points to cell phones as the reason for work intruding into family life. Chesley's findings show that while people with cell phones suffer from increased stress and lowered family satisfaction, e-mail -- a more "passive" form of communication -- does not produce the same results. This suggests that cell phones are more intrusive than other forms of communication, and our happiness suffers as a result of this intrusion.
So the next time you hear your phone ringing but no one's calling, or you feel your phone vibrate in your pocket when it's really in another room, step back for a moment. Perhaps it's time to ponder the possibility that you should take a vacation -- one where you leave your cell phone at home.
For more information on cell phones, anxiety and related articles, read the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Chesley, Noelle. "Blurring Boundaries? Linking Technology Use, Spillover, Individual Distress, and Family Satisfaction." Journal of Marriage and Family. December 2005. http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/Sociology/faculty/pdf/chesley_blurredboundaries.pdf
- Goodman, Brenda. "I Hear Ringing and There's No One There. I Wonder Why." New York Times. May 4, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/04/fashion/thursdaystyles/04phan.html
- Warner, Jennifer. "Cell Phones Raise Stress." WebMD. December 14, 2005. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/12/14/health/webmd/main1125102.shtml
- Cell Phone Users Experience Phantom Ringing; Suffer From Ringxiety." Newswise. September 13, 2007. http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/533384/
- "Phantom Vibrations Shake 'Crackberry' Addicts." CNN. October 15, 2007. http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/ptech/10/11/phantom.vibrations.ap/