Selective Hearing: Sincere Explanation or Sorry Excuse?

Have you ever asked someone a question in mid conversation and had them ask you to repeat it – even though they were sitting close by? Or ever heard your name pop up in conversation without having heard a single thing that was said before that? If you’re familiar with either of these situations, chances are that you have ‘selective hearing’ to thank for this. (Yes, it’s actually a real thing.)


What is Selective Hearing?

Selective Hearing


In layman’s terms, selective hearing – also called the ‘cocktail party effect’ – refers to the phenomenon whereby a person hears only what they are interested in hearing.

As people, we possess the impressive ability to focus our attention on something specific – say, a certain conversation or programme on T.V – and filter out a variety of other audible stimuli at the same time. While those engaging in selective hearing will still physically hear sounds, they won’t register these sounds. As a result, they won’t be aware of what is being said around them or to them. Effectively, what happens is that the conscious mind doesn’t receive the information. The ‘hearing problem’ lies with a lack of connection between the sounds and the mind.

Selective hearing is beneficial in circumstances such as cocktail parties (hence the common name ‘cocktail party effect’), where we are able to hold down and focus on one conversation in a noisy room full of people talking. But this also has obvious downfalls; like when your child / spouse insists they didn’t hear you ask them to take out the rubbish, again.


Why Does Bad Hearing Happen To Good People?


Selective Hearing



Believe it or not, being ignored as a result of selective hearing is not a sign of evil intent, hatred or malice (even if you have asked them to take out the rubbish 16 times and counting). It’s a function of misplaced attention. As we all know, the degree to which we offer our attention to people varies dramatically depending on circumstances. But in short, our attention lays with what interests us.


Hence, if you are more interested in what Jane has to say to Peter on the other side of the room than what the person you are conversing with is saying, you have a better chance of hearing what Jane and Peter are saying than what your partner in conversation is saying. Similarly, if your spouse is worried about work (an active interest of theirs) while you are talking to them about what you ate for lunch (which may not interest them much)… well, let’s just say your delicious description may fall on deaf ears. Basically, selective hearing is an outworking of our interests and priorities.


How Does It Work (Or Not Work)?


Selective Hearing


Let’s be honest. Some are better at selective hearing than others. While the reason for this usually lies with an individual’s interests, there are some people who are less able to ‘tune out’ noise than others for legitimate physical reasons.

In order to excel in the selective hearing department, we need to be able to hear well in both ears. If we have the use of both ears, we are able to localise at least two (often more) sounds at any time. Depending on what we believe the sources of the different sounds to be, we attribute characteristics to these sounds – that is – how important we consider it to be and how much attention we should be paying it. Once we have localised a sound source, we can extract the signals of this sound source from a number of interfering sound sources.

However, an impaired hearing ability – particularly if it is the loss of hearing in one ear – makes pinning sounds to different sources far more challenging. This means that those who have an impaired hearing ability will not be able to focus on one person’s speech in a room full of conversations. It also means, however, that they are less able to tune you out as well.  So if you value the ability to engage in selective hearing, look after your hearing now. Make sure you are cleaning your ears correctly and wearing earplugs (that you can pick up here) when required.


Who Falls Prey to Selective Hearing?



Selective Hearing


Nobody is immune to employing selective hearing at inappropriate times. However, research has indicated that children are especially prone to selective hearing. It has been suggested that children may use this as a coping mechanism in order to effectively deal with the overwhelming amount of new information with which they are continuously presented.

As far as men go, studies have shown that the average man tunes out after only six minutes of conversing with their significant other, but can listen attentively to friends when chatting about topics of interest such as sport.

Women have also been found to listen better and for longer when chatting to a friend as opposed to a partner. However, in general, women tend to be able to listen to their partners for longer than what men do.

Fun facts:


  • Men are most likely to ‘zone out’ when the topic up for discussion is workmates, celebrities, clothes or somebody they don’t know.


  • Four times a week is the number of times the average man admits to zoning out when his partner is talking to him.


  • More than 50% of women claim that they often test their partner to see if they are listening or not.


For more information, resources and a wide selection of ear care products, visit the other PC Werth group sites (JUST4EARS, PERFECTfit and SoundsForSchools.)

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