by Michaela Chua

When was the last time you talked about the latest news about your crushie next door? Or when did you last fish for info regarding your crushie’s status from your friends? Don’t deny it but if you are single and ready to mingle, you might have just done this a few days ago.

It’s just common that all of us update ourselves through the stories of our friends. We always want the latest and juiciest updates and we want the details of every story. We want every detail we can extract from the stories of our friends. We want to know more about our crushes. We want dig deep about the deepest and darkest secrets of celebrities. However, despite the information we get from gossip hoarding, we are only limited to hearing with our two ears. As Goldstein (2010) said, we are presented with various stimuli from our environment but we only attend to a select few. Because of human limitations, we can only focus on limited stimuli at a time.

For this week, I will be writing about auditory attention. To what extent can humans comprehend stories that are presented to them simultaneously? As we all know, everyone wants to hear about the latest news about a ton of things. Before attempting to be the god of gossips, however, we have to know to what extend can we absorb what we want to absorb? An experiment by Lisa J. Stifelman in 1994 gives light to this question.

15 participants, 3 for the pilot study and 12 for the experiment proper participated in the study.  The experiment’s objective was to determine whether individuals can comprehend and monitor what is being said in audio clips presented simultaneously. A maximum of 3 audio clips were presented to the participants in progression. The first audio clip was taken from a TOEFL preparatory exam specially made for listening comprehension. Participants were asked to listen to this audio clip and were asked questions later after listening. The second and third audio clip were was for target monitoring. Participants were given a certain word to watch out for. Every time the word was mentioned in the audio clip, the participants had to click the enter button provided to them.

The experiment started with the presentation of the listening comprehension audio clip (audio clip 1) to each participant. This was then followed by the introduction of the target monitoring clip while audio clip 1 was still playing. This was later on followed by another target monitoring audio clip while audio clips 1 and 2 were still playing.

The results of the study show a decrease in performance as the number of audio clips were added. Listening comprehension was 76.7% accurate when only audio clip 1 was listened to. This decreased to 61.7% when audio clip 2 was presented and further decreased to 51.7% when audio clip 3 was added. Target monitoring, on the other hand, had an accuracy rate of 63.1% when audio clips 1 and 2 were playing simultaneously. However, this plunged to 39.8% after audio clip 3 was introduced.

When the participants were asked about the experiment, many commented that having three background channels or audio clips presented simultaneously was very hard. The main reason for this was that with two audio clips, participants were still able to switch attention from one to another. With 3 audio clips, however, one participant commented that it “tended to block out the other two completely”.

From these results, we can see that people’s comprehension and monitoring of audio stimuli decreases as the number of background channels increase. As an application to gossiping, our abilities to listen and understand the stories we hear simultaneously are limited. Even though we want information to be presented to us simultaneously, we only have a limited capacity to absorb what is being presented to us. If we are in the subway, for example, and we hear many people talking about topics that interest us, we can only shift attentions to a limited extent and yet comprehend.

A lesson for us is to take things more easily and to content ourselves with listening to stories one at a time. We are only human and if we want to be able to relay correct and truthful stories, we should first comprehend and correctly understand the stories we hear ourselves. If not, this might blow off to become distorted gossips we all hate.


Goldstein, B. (2010). Sensation and perception. Canada: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Stifelman, L. J. (1994). The cocktail party effect in auditory interfaces: A study of simultaneous presentation. MIT Media Laboratory technical Report.

~ by myfivesenseworth on July 29, 2011.

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