Thursday, 2 November 2017

Selective Hearing Among Men and Women

Have you ever spoken to someone right in front or next to you and they didn’t acknowledge it? Maybe people talk to you sometimes and you seem totally oblivious to what they say. Worry not, you are not alone. There is actually a good chance that you may have already heard of “Selective Hearing”, which is more or less experienced by everybody, some more than others though. But what is that phenomenon about? And why does it occur? 

Selective Hearing or Selective Auditory Attention is a phenomenon that affects a wide variety of people and the communication in-between them. It is the action in which we focus our attention on a specific source of a sound or spoken words and filter out the rest; our ability to acknowledge some incoming stimuli while ignoring other stimuli occurring at the same time. That is, when we hear the words yet our minds cannot process or make sense of what is being said — whether consciously or subconsciously. It is also sometimes referred to as “hearing loss by attention”.  

Think of being in a loud gathering, a crowded café, or a concert where almost all of us have the ability to focus on whoever is speaking to us while disregarding the rest of the surrounding noise. The reason we’re able to do so is that our brains have come to be wired to ignore certain sounds — perhaps also learned to ignore certain people as Pink Panther suggests in the featured meme. Seriously though, in the field of psychology this effect was first defined and dubbed “The Cocktail Party Effect” in 1953 by British cognitive scientist Edward Colin Cherry.

Before we dive any further, let us differentiate between two distinct reasons why someone may not hear what is being said to them. 

The first is due to hearing loss. The other is selective hearing that we’re discussing herein. There is a difference between physically hearing a sound — or not — and consciously registering it in the brain — or not. One thing is certain, however, not all the information presented to us can be processed. That is because there are gazillions of them, which we simply cannot follow all. So the brain does a significant amount of filtering, when it comes to hearing as well as our other senses. 

With selective hearing, you are not pretending to not being able to hear. But rather, the brain filters out “the distractions” to selectively focus on that one stimulus which it thinks is more important; hence ending up not actually listening to “the distraction”.

If you haven’t already thought of some man (before a woman) or of yourself by now, let me state the obvious by sharing that selective hearing is more prevalent in males than females. Generally speaking, the same goes for hearing loss among adults aged 20-69, which men are almost twice as likely as women to experience.

Selective hearing is also a common phenomenon among couples who live together and interact on daily basis. How interesting.

Research in England has revealed that on average, men listen for six minutes in discussions about general topics with their spouses or partners, while they engage in conversations with other men for at least 15 minutes on topics related to sports.

Researchers further noted that men have selective listening when discussing specific topics. Her feelings, problems at work, her friends’ issues, fashion/clothing/shopping, celebrities and certain TV shows all fall under that category. Sounds mean, huh. But hey, men do listen… until a certain time, then they zone out. Unless of course you mention something which interests them. Then they will focus right back in. Surprise? 

Knowing this, if I were a woman I’d always blurt out the essence in that first minute when they are most attentive. “Honey, I’m pregnant.” “Honey, I need a divorce.” Well, I guess some of them had figured it out already. 

Participants in that same study identified common signs that reflect selective listening:
  • Delayed responses to questions asked
  • Blank or confused expressions
  • Singular focus on a digital device or TV

It seems that selective hearing is so widespread in the man world, that 55 percent of women test their partners’ listening skills; obviously because they had already noticed. Also 50 percent of men confessed they were not good listeners; obviously because they themselves had already noticed as well.

Sounds familiar?

I am so guilty as charged, the topic is highly captivating and I’m writing an article about it. All I can remember is a certain ex losing her temper whenever I would switch off. But she was overdoing it, which would make me switch off even more.

To her defence, however, I do zone out a whole lot. But I am quite the nefelibata after all.

To my defence, on the other hand, who and what I am requires the zone. Without it I wouldn’t be able to create. She simply just couldn’t deal with my priorities, and I understood. I would sometimes nag her by getting all philosophical, saying stuff like: When a man listens carefully to the sound of silence, he will not have to speak much. While it often left me amused, the smart-assness certainly didn’t help the relationship much.

All those memes and cartoons show that it’s a universal phenomenon

What is remarkable is that according to a Study published in the Association for Psychological Science by Queen University in Canada, spouses can pick up each other’s voices better due to familiarity, even in crowded settings. Couples can hear each other significantly better compared to other voices. Just like penguins.

In fact, long-term couples tend to develop interconnected memory systems called Collaborative Remembering. They both become parts in an interpersonal cognitive system, which enables them to grow through life while relying on each other. This further shows that the selection bit is real.

What has helped me with said ex is that I have Tinnitus — ringing in the ears. So she began believing that not hearing what she had said was due to my hearing. And I happily went along with it. 

At some point, though, came the realisation that whatever I was experiencing was indeed selective, and not because of some hearing impairment. It was because with certain other people, mainly guys, I wouldn’t miss a word, often when talking about something I’m passionate about.

With others, like her and a couple of previous ‘seniors’ I had while still working for the Matrix, it appears that many of the things they would said was already registered in my mind beforehand as something not of worth. This only occurred with those I have dealt with enough to get to know their essence on a deeper level. It is like I could see through their bullshit, which didn’t impress me much. So I sort of blocked out many of the input coming from them, subconsciously. 

Even though I like to play sports, but talking about it with the guys as the English study points is currently a thing of the past. What does stir my juices are intellectual conversations with someone who digs you. Those can actually be quite erotic. Due to that rare mental connection one could go on for hours and hours — and I wouldn’t miss a single word. 

Before getting too sexist here, let me share that is has been likewise revealed that 50 percent of women are guilty of filtering out discussions about sports, with 33 percent switching off during anything to do with finance and technology. So the digits are smaller, but the zoning out is equally there in the woman world. With their friends, however, women listen longer and are more engaged in their discussions. 

One proposed theory explaining why men are more ‘selective’ when it comes to what they actually hear is that for our hunter-gathers ancestors, it was a survival requirement to be able to focus all their attention on a single thing — a hunting situation for instance. On the other hand, women were able to divide their concentration among more than one — watching the children while picking fruits or vegetables. Perhaps due to the less dangerous nature of the activities females took part in, they were able to multitask. And that is how the selection bit may have been hardwired into the male/female brain.

More thorough, medically-oriented explanation about selective hearing, and the sense of hearing in general, can be found on this Article. Published by University of California San Francisco, How Selective Hearing Works In the Brain is another detailed paper focusing on neuroscience. 

Lastly, is one more finding which sealed the deal and made me satisfyingly finalise this article. It is no wonder that it is also neuroscience-related. A reason why I am a sincere fan; for it takes us to the very bottom of the human mind’s inner reaches.

Until now, we knew selective hearing is a thing and that, compared to women, men excel at it — especially when dealing with their female partners or loved ones. But we didn’t know why specifically that is the case. Well, the answer lies in a Study by University of Sheffield. Published in the journal NeuroImage, it was found that there are differences in the way male and female brains process voice sounds. Apparently, in the male brain the perception of male and female voices activate different regions. And that is due to the fact that both voices are of different quality.

While men are easily able to hear and understand other men’s voices, when faced with the female voice it’s a whole different tale. Females have a greater natural melody and possess a more complex range of sound frequencies. This requires the males more effort to decipher their voices. True story. That’s not even it. But to decipher a female’s voice, a male uses an entirely different and more elaborate region of his brain: The one which processes music — whether consciously or subconsciously. A finding that takes the saying “Your voice is music to my ears” to a whole new level.

So much makes sense now. Thank you science and thank you neuroscience!

Now that we know what it is and why it occurs, if you’re a woman who gets frustrated when your partner seemingly ignore your ranting, know that somehow they can’t really help it. This is not an excuse. But as we have seen, your voices are translated by men as music, hence they take more effort to be registered. The kind of topic is also another variable.

If you are a male who is often accused of willingly ignoring your missus, know that you may not be as deaf as she thinks. Although you may be after all. But also know that you are not alone. Hopefully, being aware of this information helps you prioritise your attention. Maybe some keywords would assist in retaining your focus ― or spacing out: My feelings. Sad. I think we should start seeing different people. The Kardashians. You know, the crucial stuff that matter most. 

At the very end, selective hearing is real. When coming back from work five times a week and narrating what transpired throughout your whole day or discussing a certain reality show with yours, try to consider, even for a brief moment, what’s in it for them. Sounding like Kramer explaining to Seinfeld how couples talk about their days, every single day, may not be that exciting. Of course they may love you and care about you, yet also priorities and mental capacity are some of things we need to think about regarding communication. 

Whether male or female, from the speaker point of view, one way to conquer selective hearing is to be as exciting as possible in the speech and stories you share with your partner, or anyone else for that matter. Perhaps also as novel as possible. That is of course, if you want to keep them engaged for more than 6 or 10 minutes.

On a parallel note, check out What Are Phantom Vibration Syndrome and Phantom Ringing? and On Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing as well as What The Heck are Vocal Fry and Upspeak?

“He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.”
― Elbert Hubbard 


How Selective Hearing Works In the Brain: University of California San Francisco

Male and female voices affect brain differently: The University of Sheffield

Your Spouse’s Voice Is Easier to Hear – And Easier to Ignore: Psychological Science/Association for Psychological Science

The cocktail party effect: PsyBlog

The cocktail party effect: Wikipedia

Edward Colin Cherry: School of Mathematics and Statistics: University of St Andrews, Scotland/Biographies

Collaborative Remembering: YouTube video

English study finds average bloke switches off after just six minutes of chatting: Dailymail

Is ‘selective hearing’ actually a thing?: Health 24


What Are Phantom Vibration Syndrome and Phantom Ringing?

What The Heck are Vocal Fry and Upspeak?

How Do We Know We Are Good at Something?

On Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing

The Intertwining of Music and Sexuality ― A Djembefola’s Tale

The Intertwining of Genius and Insanity

Different Shades of Passion

How Drumming Changed The Way My Brain Processes Music
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