Does The Cocktail Party Phenomenon Work The Same Way For Everyone?



Whenever you have gone to a party, a bar, or really any crowded place, you might have realized that you are able to pay attention to one person’s speech among competing conversations while still hearing and recognizing certain key words from other conversations, such as your name. This experience has been labeled the “Cocktail Party Phenomenon”, which was originally researched in the 1950s. Since then, it has been looked into by several different researchers who have researched different aspects of the phenomenon.

Conway, Cowan, and Bunting (PAYNET: replicated one of the original studies of the cocktail party phenomenon and extended their investigation to include the importance of working memory capacity.

For their experiment, they used a sample size of forty undergraduate students from the University of Illinois at Chicago. All of these participants had normal hearing and were native English speakers. From there these students were categorized as having either a high or low working-memory span. This classification was done on the basis of scores previously determined by a larger sample of participants who partook in an operation span task, which was previously used in a study done by Turner and Engle in 1989. All subjects were then introduced to a selective listening procedure, where they put on stereo headphones and listened to a relevant and an irrelevant message, both lasting five and a half minutes. They were told to listen to the relevant message, while ignoring the irrelevant message, and to repeat each word as soon as they heard it. After about four or five minutes, the participant’s name was included in the irrelevant message. After the messages ended, the participants were then told to answer a questionnaire about the irrelevant message.

Their results were significant. Only twenty percent of subjects who had high working memory span reported hearing their name in the irrelevant message while sixty-five percent of those with low working memory span reported hearing their name. However, subjects with low-span working memory had twice as much errors in their task of shadowing as those with high-span working memory. The researchers did check to see if there were any group differences in shadowing errors one or two words before the participant’s name was said in order to determine if low-span subjects detected their name more simply because they were paying attention to the irrelevant message at an opportune time, but there was no significant difference. They did find a difference in shadowing errors during the presentation of the name, which suggests that hearing one’s name distracted those of low-span subjects more.

The researchers determined that their results either show that working memory capacity drives inhibitory ability, or vice versa. They state that their finds are important because it demonstrates how critical working memory is for selective attention activities, such as dichotic listening.

Barbara Moran from Boston University ( was also interested in what made some people better than others at tuning out other conversations. But instead of looking at the effects of working memory, she turned to people’s musical background.

In order to research this, Moran read about a study done by Kidd and Swaminathan that looked into whether or not musicians can better discriminate between conversations and listen to only one than normal people. In order to test this, the scientists had twelve musicians, who had a minimum of ten years of training and were actively practicing music, and twelve non-musicians. All of them wore a pair of headphones and were directed to pick out the target voice that sounded like it was coming from straight ahead of them, out of several different voices coming from all different directions.

As Moran and the researchers suspected, the musicians performed better at the task than the non-musicians did. However, the study did not stop there. Swaminathan wanted to see if this difference was due to the signal musicians have been trained to pick up. In order to test this, he played the voices backwards, so the words were unrecognizable. This time, all the participants performed about the same. To the researchers, this meant that the musician’s enhanced ability is not because they can hear better, but rather because they are able to focus a lot more on one stream of sound among others, meaning their enhanced ability is because of how their brains process the signal.

While study had significant results, it did not answer whether musicians have this enhanced ability when they are born or if they gain it throughout training.

Before reading these two articles, I did not think of the cocktail party phenomenon as an experience that varied amongst people. Truthfully, it was simply a scientific term that I learned about in almost every psychology class that I have ever taken. So, because I did not give it much thought, I simply believed it was a thing that everyone experienced in the same way in order to allow us to hear what we need to hear and not be overstimulated. However, that is most certainly not the case, as we do not experience really anything the same way as everybody else. I personally believe that perception is very interesting to think about since not two people see, hear, feel, or taste exactly the same thing. Our differences certainly explains a lot to why everyone is so different from one another and why we all respond to things differently.

As far as the cocktail party phenomenon goes, I believe that there are many factors that come into play when talking why people experience it differently. If my sensation and perception class taught me anything, there is never just one right explanation. I think the two articles I read are just the tip of the iceberg, one that I feel is really cool (see what I did there?). Personally, the theory that working memory plans a role into it is very interesting. Originally, I would have thought that have a higher span would allow someone to pay attention to more of everything that is being said. But, once relating it to one’s level and direction of attention, it makes sense that those with low-span would be worse at inhibiting other speech. Because if someone is good at repeating what they hear back, they likely will be more encouraged to stay focused solely on the task, because they are good at it, and therefore would have a higher inhibitory ability. But the musicians being better at it also makes sense because they have to be able to connect with multiple voices while still focusing on one in order to be good at their job. However, to me it seems that musicians would be more likely to have a higher working memory span because they often have to remember a lot of last-minute changes to their performance when things do not go according to plan.

All this leads me to believe that there is not one variable at play here, and that one’s ability to tune out other conversations while focusing only on one depends on a wide range of factors, which we have yet to discover.