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Are you listening to me? – The psychology of selective hearing

02-27-16 Category: Cognition

Are you listening to me? - The psychology of selective hearing

You bellow from the kitchen to your husband to clean up after his pet alpaca. No response. You try again, even louder. Boswell the dog nearly passes out from the noise, but still no reaction from your heart’s own. Fearing for Boswell’s welfare, you bring the mountain to Mohammad.

You find him iris-deep into the sixth season of “Army Wives.” You clear your throat; he doesn’t move. You cough; he sighs. Not because you have interrupted his reverie but because one of the wives has just confessed to being a North Korean operative. Luckily, Boswell is not the least interested in the 300-plus chew toys you have purchased for him over the years. You select the hefty rubber one made in the mailman’s image and brain your soulmate with it. He cries out, “Yow,” and rubs his forehead. “What was that for?” “Didn’t you hear me calling?” “No.” And then you have him. You produce a study published in the Association for Psychological Science that proves spouses can pick out each other’s voices, even in crowded settings or over the din of dismal television shows. He is guilty of selective hearing and you both know it. Sadly, he is unaffected by this proclamation and pops the season seven DVD into the player.

Selective hearing

Researchers selected 23 married couples between the ages of 44 and 79 for the experiment. To ensure the participants were well aware of the timbre of their spouses, researchers selected couples who had been together for 18 years or more. In the first lab session, participants recorded sentences supplied by the researchers. In the second session, participants listened to recordings of their spouses and other spouses of the same sex speaking the sentences. Other conditions were introduced to render voices not nearly as recognizable as they would be outside of a controlled situation.

A total of six hundred trials of this sort were conducted with varying degrees of audio obfuscation. Results of the study prove spouses hear and recognize each other’s voices significantly better than they hear other voices. According to the study, when a spouse is presented with a familiar target (voice) compared to a familiar masker (another voice), the spouse accurately identifies the voice of his or her partner nearly 95 percent of the time compared to about 85 percent of the time for the familiar masker.

Choosing not to hear

The cocktail party effect is the ability to tune out the white noise of noisy environments and focus on a single sound, such as a voice or a song on a radio. Researchers at the University of San Francisco have solved this mystery. But this article has to do with the sociological implications of selective hearing. Specifically, why couples resort to tuning each other out as a means of marital warfare. Or for protection. Or both.

Metal fatigue

Metal fatigue occurs when metal loses its integrity due to repeated stresses or loadings. Metal fatigue occurs in long-term relationships when spouses subject each other to the same irritants over and over. One of these irritants is how spouses voice disagreement. According to one source, how someone says something is as important as what that person says. Over time, spouses selectively tune out what the other says, either because he or she may have a point (and, thereby, invalidate the other’s argument) or simply because the manner in which the other expresses his or her valid point comes across as condescending, sarcastic and just plain mean. The warring spouses hear tone but not words. They pick up on intonation and inflection but fail to hear the substance. Or they wait for the button word or phrase they know is coming. The word or phrase that has nothing to do with the argument and everything to do with inflicting hurt.

Ineffective and effective listening

Herbert G. Lingren of the University of Nebraska – Lincoln offers examples of ineffective listening. These include the Faker (be wary of broad smiles and bobble head-like nodding), the Interrupter (self-explanatory), the Self-Conscious Listener (it’s all about looking good; actually listening is secondary), the Intellectual Listener (the fail to pick up on intonation, nuances and nonverbal expressions) and the Judge and Jury Listener (they’ve made up their minds in advance; resistance is futile).

Not unlike active listening, effective listening requires concentration as well as perception. Effective listeners comprehend not just the speaker’s words but the level of emotion attached to those words. Here are five tips for becoming an effective listener:

  1. Be conscious of your body language. Body language can express interest, ambivalence, even disdain.
  2. Do not be afraid of silence. Awkward silences may be uncomfortable in social situations but serious conversations often require time-outs for each party to reflect on what is being discussed.
  3. Show restraint. Do not be the Interrupter. It may be difficult to hold your tongue but it is imperative the other person is provided enough time to articulate his or her position.
  4. Question. It is not rude to ask questions. Questions indicate you are paying attention to what the other is saying.
  5. Focus. This is not time for situational ADD. The other person deserves your undivided attention just as you deserve his or her undivided attention.

Sovereign Health Group actively listens to our patients. We are a leader in the treatment of mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders. We combine traditional therapy modalities with experimental treatment, including art and equine therapy. If you or someone you love is battling substance abuse or has a mental health problem, call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author:

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at

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