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Cocktail party effect

cocktail party effect, cocktail party effect psychology
The cocktail party effect is the phenomenon of being able to focus one's auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli, as when a partygoer can focus on a single conversation in a noisy room12 This effect is what allows most people to "tune into" a single voice and "tune out" all others It may also describe a similar phenomenon that occurs when one may immediately detect words of importance originating from unattended stimuli, for instance hearing one's name in another conversation34


  • 1 Binaural processing
  • 2 Early work
  • 3 More recent work
  • 4 Models of attention
    • 41 Broadbent
    • 42 Treisman
    • 43 Deutsch & Deutsch
    • 44 Kahneman
  • 5 Visual correlates
  • 6 See also
  • 7 References

Binaural processingedit

The cocktail party effect works best as a binaural effect, which requires hearing with both ears People with only one functioning ear seem much more distracted by interfering noise than people with two typical ears5

The binaural aspect of the cocktail party effect is related to the localization of sound sources The auditory system is able to localize at least two sound sources and assign the correct characteristics to these sources simultaneously As soon as the auditory system has localized a sound source, it can extract the signals of this sound source out of a mixture of interfering sound sources6

Early workedit

In the early 1950s much of the early attention research can be traced to problems faced by air traffic controllers At that time, controllers received messages from pilots over loudspeakers in the control tower Hearing the intermixed voices of many pilots over a single loudspeaker made the controller's task very difficult7 The effect was first defined and named "the cocktail party problem" by Colin Cherry in 19538 Cherry conducted attention experiments in which participants listened to two different messages from a single loudspeaker at the same time and tried to separate them; this was later termed a dichotic listening task9 See Broadbent section below for more details His work reveals that the ability to separate sounds from background noise is affected by many variables, such as the sex of the speaker, the direction from which the sound is coming, the pitch, and the rate of speech8

Cherry developed the shadowing task in order to further study how people selectively attend to one message amid other voices and noises In a shadowing task participants wear a special headset that presents a different message to each ear The participant is asked to repeat aloud the message called shadowing that is heard in a specified ear called a channel9 Cherry found that participants were able to detect their name from the unattended channel, the channel they were not shadowing10 Later research using Cherry's shadowing task was done by Neville Moray in 1959 He was able to conclude that almost none of the rejected message is able to penetrate the block set up, except subjectively "important" messages10

More recent workedit

Selective attention shows up across all ages Starting with infancy, babies begin to turn their heads toward a sound that is familiar to them, such as their parents’ voices11 This shows that infants selectively attend to specific stimuli in their environment Furthermore, reviews of selective attention indicate that infants favor “baby” talk over speech with an adult tone911 This preference indicates that infants can recognize physical changes in the tone of speech However, the accuracy in noticing these physical differences, like tone, amid background noise improves over time11 The ability to filter out unattended stimuli reaches its prime in young adulthood In reference to the cocktail party phenomenon, older adults have a harder time than younger adults focusing in on one conversation if competing stimuli, like “subjectively” important messages, make up the background noise11

Some examples of messages that catch people’s attention include personal names and taboo words The ability to selectively attend to one’s own name has been found in infants as young as 5 months of age and appears to be fully developed by 13 months12 Along with multiple experts in the field, Anne Treisman states that people are permanently primed to detect personally significant words, like names, and theorizes that they may require less perceptual information than other words to trigger identification13 Another stimulus that reaches some level of semantic processing while in the unattended channel is taboo words14 These words often contain sexually explicit material that cause an alert system in people that leads to decreased performance in shadowing tasks15 Taboo words do not affect children in selective attention until they develop a strong vocabulary with an understanding of language

Even more recently, modern neuroscience techniques are being applied to study the cocktail party problem Some notable examples of researchers doing such work include Edward Chang, Nima Mesgarani, and Charles Schroeder using electrocorticography; Jonathan Simon, Mounya Elhilali, Adrian KC Lee, Shihab Shamma, Barbara Shinn-Cunningham and Jyrki Ahveninen using magnetoencephalography; Jyrki Ahveninen, Edmund Lalor, and Barbara Shinn-Cunningham using electroencephalography; and Jyrki Ahveninen and Lee M Miller using functional magnetic resonance imaging

Models of attentionedit

Not all the information presented to us can be processed In theory, the selection of what to pay attention to can be random or nonrandom16 For example, when driving, drivers are able to focus on the traffic lights rather than on other stimuli present in the scene In such cases it is mandatory to select which portion of presented stimuli is important A basic question in psychology is when this selection occurs9 This issue has developed into the early versus late selection controversy The basis for this controversy can be found in the Cherry dichotic listening experiments Participants were able to notice physical changes, like pitch or change in gender of the speaker, and stimuli, like their own name, in the unattended channel This brought about the question of whether the meaning, semantics, of the unattended message was processed before selection9 In an early selection attention model very little information is processed before selection occurs In late selection attention models more information, like semantics, is processed before selection occurs16


Some of the earliest work in exploring mechanisms of early selective attention was performed by Donald Broadbent, who proposed a theory that came to be known as the filter model17 This model was established using the dichotic listening task His research showed that most participants were accurate in recalling information that they actively attended to, but were far less accurate in recalling information that they had not attended to This led Broadbent to the conclusion that there must be a "filter" mechanism in the brain that could block out information that was not selectively attended to The filter model was hypothesized to work in the following way: as information enters the brain through sensory organs in this case, the ears it is stored in sensory memory, a buffer memory system that hosts an incoming stream of information long enough for us to pay attention to it9 Before information is processed further, the filter mechanism allows only attended information to pass through The selected attention is then passed into working memory, the set of mechanisms that underlies short-term memory and communicates with long-term memory9 In this model, auditory information can be selectively attended to on the basis of its physical characteristics, such as location and volume171819 Others suggest that information can be attended to on the basis of Gestalt features, including continuity and closure20 For Broadbent, this explained the mechanism by which people can choose to attend to only one source of information at a time while excluding others However, Broadbent's model failed to account for the observation that words of semantic importance, for example the individual's own name, can be instantly attended to despite having been in an unattended channel

Shortly after Broadbent's experiments, Oxford undergraduates Gray and Wedderburn repeated his dichotic listening tasks, altered with monosyllabic words that could form meaningful phrases, except that the words were divided across ears21 For example, the words, "Dear, one, Jane," were sometimes presented in sequence to the right ear, while the words, "three, Aunt, six," were presented in a simultaneous, competing sequence to the left ear Participants were more likely to remember, "Dear Aunt Jane," than to remember the numbers; they were also more likely to remember the words in the phrase order than to remember the numbers in the order they were presented This finding goes against Broadbent's theory of complete filtration because the filter mechanism would not have time to switch between channels This suggests that meaning may be processed first


In a later addition to this existing theory of selective attention, Anne Treisman developed the attenuation model22 In this model, information, when processed through a filter mechanism, is not completely blocked out as Broadbent might suggest Instead, the information is weakened attenuated, allowing it to pass through all stages of processing at an unconscious level Treisman also suggested a threshold mechanism whereby some words, on the basis of semantic importance, may grab one's attention from the unattended stream One's own name, according to Treisman, has a low threshold value ie it has a high level of meaning and thus is recognized more easily The same principle applies to words like fire, directing our attention to situations that may immediately require it The only way this can happen, Treisman argued, is if information was being processed continuously in the unattended stream

Deutsch & Deutschedit

Diana Deutsch, best known for her work in music perception and auditory illusions, has also made important contributions to models of attention In order to explain in more detail how words can be attended to on the basis of semantic importance, Deutsch & Deutsch23 and Norman24 proposed a model of attention which includes a second selection mechanism based on meaning In what came to be known as the Deutsch-Norman model, information in the unattended stream is not processed all the way into working memory, as Treisman's model would imply Instead, information on the unattended stream is passed through a secondary filter after pattern recognition If the unattended information is recognized and deemed unimportant by the secondary filter, it is prevented from entering working memory In this way, only immediately important information from the unattended channel can come to awareness


Daniel Kahneman also proposed a model of attention, but it differs from previous models in that he describes attention not in terms of selection, but in terms of capacity For Kahneman, attention is a resource to be distributed among various stimuli,25 a proposition which has received some support42627 This model describes not when attention is focused, but how it is focused According to Kahneman, attention is generally determined by arousal; a general state of physiological activity The Yerkes-Dodson law predicts that arousal will be optimal at moderate levels - performance will be poor when one is over- or under-aroused Of particular relevance, Narayan et al discovered a sharp decline in the ability to discriminate between auditory stimuli when background noises were too numerous and complex - this is evidence of the negative effect of overarousal on attention26 Thus, arousal determines our available capacity for attention Then, an allocation policy acts to distribute our available attention among a variety of possible activities Those deemed most important by the allocation policy will have the most attention given to them The allocation policy is affected by enduring dispositions automatic influences on attention and momentary intentions a conscious decision to attend to something Momentary intentions requiring a focused direction of attention rely on substantially more attention resources than enduring dispositions28 Additionally, there is an ongoing evaluation of the particular demands of certain activities on attention capacity25 That is to say, activities that are particularly taxing on attention resources will lower attention capacity and will influence the allocation policy - in this case, if an activity is too draining on capacity, the allocation policy will likely cease directing resources to it and instead focus on less taxing tasks Kahneman's model explains the cocktail party phenomenon in that momentary intentions might allow one to expressly focus on a particular auditory stimulus, but that enduring dispositions which can include new events, and perhaps words of particular semantic importance can capture our attention It is important to note that Kahneman's model doesn't necessarily contradict selection models, and thus can be used to supplement them

Visual correlatesedit

Some research has demonstrated that the cocktail party effect may not be simply an auditory phenomenon, and that relevant effects can be obtained when testing visual information as well For example, Shapiro et al were able to demonstrate an "own name effect" with visual tasks, where subjects were able to easily recognize their own names when presented as unattended stimuli29 They adopted a position in line with late selection models of attention such as the Treisman or Deutsch-Norman models, suggesting that early selection would not account for such a phenomenon The mechanisms by which this effect might occur were left unexplained

See alsoedit

  • Auditory processing disorder
  • Auditory scene analysis
  • Cognitive inhibition
  • Crossmodal attention
  • Echoic memory
  • King–Kopetzky syndrome
  • Selective auditory attention
  • Spatial hearing loss
  • Stimulus filtering
  • Source separation


  1. ^ Bronkhorst, Adelbert W 2000 "The Cocktail Party Phenomenon: A Review on Speech Intelligibility in Multiple-Talker Conditions" pdf Acta Acustica united with Acustica 86: 117–128 Retrieved 2010-04-18 
  2. ^ Shinn-Cunningham, Barbara G 2008 "Object-based auditory and visual attention" pdf Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12: 182–186 doi:101016/jtics200802003 
  3. ^ Wood N, Cowan N January 1995 "The cocktail party phenomenon revisited: how frequent are attention shifts to one's name in an irrelevant auditory channel" J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 21 1: 255–60 PMID 7876773 doi:101037/0278-7393211255 
  4. ^ a b Conway AR, Cowan N, Bunting MF June 2001 "The cocktail party phenomenon revisited: the importance of working memory capacity" Psychon Bull Rev 8 2: 331–5 PMID 11495122 doi:103758/BF03196169 
  5. ^ Hawley ML, Litovsky RY, Culling JF February 2004 "The benefit of binaural hearing in a cocktail party: effect of location and type of interferer" PDF J Acoust Soc Am 115 2: 833–43 PMID 15000195 doi:101121/11639908 
  6. ^ Fritz JB, Elhilali M, David SV, Shamma SA August 2007 "Auditory attention--focusing the searchlight on sound" Curr Opin Neurobiol 17 4: 437–55 PMID 17714933 doi:101016/jconb200707011 
  7. ^ Sorkin, Robert D; Kantowitz, Barry H 1983 Human factors: understanding people-system relationships New York: Wiley ISBN 0-471-09594-X OCLC 8866672 
  8. ^ a b Cherry, E Colin 1953 "Some Experiments on the Recognition of Speech, with One and with Two Ears" PDF The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 25 5: 975–79 ISSN 0001-4966 doi:101121/11907229 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Revlin, Russell 2007 Human Cognition : Theory and Practice New York, NY: Worth Pub p 59 ISBN 9780716756675 OCLC 779665820 
  10. ^ a b Moray, Neville 1959 "Attention in dichotic listening: Affective cues and the influence of instructions" PDF Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 11 1: 56–60 ISSN 0033-555X doi:101080/17470215908416289 
  11. ^ a b c d Plude DJ, Enns JT, Brodeur D August 1994 "The development of selective attention: a life-span overview" Acta Psychol Amst 86 2-3: 227–72 PMID 7976468 doi:101016/0001-69189490004-3 
  12. ^ Newman, Rochelle S 2005 "The Cocktail Party Effect in Infants Revisited: Listening to One's Name in Noise" Developmental Psychology 41 2: 352–362 PMID 15769191 doi:101037/0012-1649412352 
  13. ^ Driver J February 2001 "A selective review of selective attention research from the past century" PDF Br J Psychol 92 Part 1: 53–78 PMID 11802865 doi:101348/000712601162103 
  14. ^ Straube, E R; Germer, C K 1979 "Dichotic shadowing and selective attention to word meanings in schizophrenia" Journal of Abnormal Psychology 88 4: 346–353 doi:101037/0021-843X884346 
  15. ^ Nielsen, Stevan L; Sarason, Irwin G 1981 "Emotion, personality, and selective attention" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41 5: 945–960 ISSN 0022-3514 doi:101037/0022-3514415945 
  16. ^ a b Cohen, Asher 2006 "Selective Attention" Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science doi:101002/0470018860s00612 
  17. ^ a b Broadbent, DE 1954 "The role of auditory localization in attention and memory span" Journal of Experimental Psychology 47 3: 191–196 PMID 13152294 doi:101037/h0054182 
  18. ^ Scharf, Bertram 1990 "On hearing what you listen for: The effects of attention and expectancy" Canadian Psychology 31 4: 386–387 doi:101037/h0084409 
  19. ^ Brungart DS, Simpson BD January 2007 "Cocktail party listening in a dynamic multitalker environment" Percept Psychophys 69 1: 79–91 PMID 17515218 doi:103758/BF03194455 
  20. ^ Haykin, Simon; Chen, Zhe 17 Oct 2005 "The Cocktail Party Problem" Neural Computation 17 9: 1875–1902 doi:101162/0899766054322964 
  21. ^ Gray JA; Wedderburn AAI 1960 "Grouping strategies with simultaneous stimuli" Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 12 3: 180–184 doi:101080/17470216008416722 
  22. ^ Treisman, Anne M 1969 "Strategies and models of selective attention" Psychological Review 76 3: 282–299 PMID 4893203 doi:101037/h0027242 
  23. ^ Deutsch, JA; Deutsch, D 1963 "Attention: Some Theoretical Considerations" Psychological Review 70 I: 80–90 PMID 14027390 doi:101037/h0039515 
  24. ^ Norman, Donald A 1968 "Toward a theory of memory and attention" Psychological Review 75 6: 522–536 doi:101037/h0026699 
  25. ^ a b Kahneman, D 1973 Attention and effort Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
  26. ^ a b Narayan, Rajiv; Best, Virginia; Ozmeral, Erol; McClaine, Elizabeth; Dent, Micheal; Shinn-Cunningham, Barbara; Sen, Kamal 2007 "Cortical interference effects in the cocktail party problem" Nature Neuroscience 10 12: 1601–1607 doi:101038/nn2009 
  27. ^ Dalton, Polly; Santangelo, Valerio; Spence, Charles 2009 "The role of working memory in auditory selective attention" The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 62 11: 2126–2132 doi:101080/17470210903023646 
  28. ^ Koch, Iring; Lawo, Vera; Fels, Janina; Vorländer, Michael 9 May 2011 "Switching in the cocktail party: Exploring intentional control of auditory selective attention" Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 37 4: 1140–1147 doi:101037/a0022189 
  29. ^ Shapiro, Kimron L; Caldwell, Judy; Sorensen, Robyn E 1 January 1997 "Personal names and the attentional blink: A visual "cocktail party" effect" Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 23 2: 504–514 doi:101037/0096-1523232504 

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