Do You Suffer from the Cocktail Party Effect?

women and men sitting at a cocktail party

Over the past year, you’ve probably had little reason to be at events where there are crowds or groups due to the pandemic. But as the economy opens back up and as you go to crowded restaurants or events, you may begin to notice you’re suffering from what’s known as the “cocktail party effect.”

That’s when you have a hard time focusing on a single speaker or conversation because of all the other “background noise” around you. Pre-pandemic, this was one of the biggest complaints people had about their hearing in crowded situations—it was difficult to hear in background noise and focus on the speaker. Even people who don’t have hearing loss can find this a challenge.

The cocktail party effect was first described by Colin Cherry, a British scientist, in the early 1950s. Cherry conducted a series of experiments to determine how people listen.

In the first, he played back two different messages (voiced by the same person) through both ears of a set of headphones. He then asked the participants to write down one of the messages. After some effort and concentration, they could, eventually, separate one of the messages from another.

The real surprise, though, came in the second series of experiments. Here, the participants were played one message to the left ear and one message to the right ear (again voiced by the same person). Suddenly, they could separate the messages from each other – and even shift their attention between the two.

Though this issue was first described more than 60 years ago, it still presents a challenge, especially for those with hearing loss.  Is there anything you can do to overcome the cocktail party effect?

Here are some suggestions that may help.

First, if you have hearing aids, wear them. By wearing two hearing aids, particularly two digital hearing aids that can communicate together instantaneously, people with hearing loss can fight the cocktail party effect. The interaction between the pair simply helps users better determine the location of a sound.

Second, there are strategies that can help you communicate better in crowded situations. For example, look for a quiet, out-of-the-way area to talk. When everyone is in the same room, the noise level gets louder and louder as more people join the group—that makes it difficult for someone with hearing loss to join in the conversation.

Third, find a spot where you’ll be able to make eye contact with others and can read their lips if they’re talking, and that is well lit. Well-lit places help people with hearing loss to pick up on visual clues. Visual cues can help you fill in the conversation blanks and ensure your attention is focused on listening. Vision may improve understanding up to 40 percent!

And don’t be shy about asking for help. For example, you can ask your conversation partner to speak at a slower rate. This gives your brain time to process what is being said and fills in any information you were unable to understand.

If this is a common problem for you, you also might consider investing in advanced hearing aids with digital, adaptive, directional microphones, superior digital signal processing,  and assistive technology, such as remote FM microphones. These technological advances can help by better highlighting speech from other background noises.

Some hearing assistive devices available include Bluetooth technology, integrated applications, customized programs, noise reduction algorithms, remote microphones, and digital, adaptive multi-directional microphones. Your audiologist can recommend the best technology for your circumstances.

Schedule an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist.