Multitasking Makes Us Poor Listeners

by Lindsay Stärke

Have you ever been so deep in a task or activity that you completely couldn’t hear somebody else talking to you? If so, you’re not alone. Scientists call this occurrence “inattentional deafness,” where people are so involved in a visual task that they involuntarily mute all sounds that might interfere with concentration. Though its sister phenomenon inattentional blindness has been studied a great deal, only very recently have researchers James S. P. Macdonald and Nilli Lavie confirmed the existence of inattentional deafness in an experimental setting.

Participants in the series of experiments were given one of two visual tasks: one that was fairly simple (distinguishing between two colors) and one that was fairly challenging (detecting a subtle difference in length between two objects). Researchers then gave subjects headphones playing white noise in experiment one and headphones playing nothing in experiment two. In both cases, beeping noises were played toward the end of the experiment; as expected, the participants engaged in the more challenging task were less likely to have noticed the beeps when they were later asked. They then repeated the experiment with a more-challenging and less-challenging version of the length task, in order to reconfirm results, and found that the more challenging task still led to missing the beeps.

More studies need to be conducted on inattentional deafness to truly see how it affects our everyday lives. Macdonald and Lavie have concerns about inattentional deafness and driving a motor vehicle stating that if people were “less likely to notice an auditory alarm while engaged in a high-visual-load computer task, [then] the sound of a car horn while attending to a visually loaded billboard” also might pose a problem. Safety out on the roadways is definitely a concern.

Humans can’t effectively multitask. It appears that in order to really listen successfully, we must direct our undivided attention to the person or program we want to hear. Of course, this probably won’t stop us from checking our smartphones, watching TV, or otherwise getting visually distracted while attempting to listen. Now, what were you saying?

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