Cocktail party effect

Michael Gearon
2 min readApr 13, 2022

We have this amazing ability to filter out noises that are not relevant and focus on one sound, sometimes called selective hearing the cocktail party effect is the ability to focus on a specific noise whilst filtering out others.

This ability does not just exist for people, but also some science has shown that animals also do the same especially in noisy social environments. The cocktail party effect can also refer to how our attention can be switched suddernly if we hear our name, grabbing our attention even if we were not part of the original conversation.

The first research into this

The most well documented first version study of this effect was conducted by Colin Cherry, who was a British cognitive scientist, in 1950s and onwards. Cherry’s work often focused on auditory attention with one of those areas being the cocktail party research.

The 1953 paper thought there was 5 factors to how a human could seperate a voice from surrounding conversations or noise:

  1. Body language
  2. Speaking voices such as speed, pitch or if the voice was male or female
  3. Accents
  4. Direction of the voice
  5. Tranisition probailities, our abiltiy to pick up a few word and then fill in the gaps to form a complete sentance

The research he done was a A/B test, the first test he done was played two different messages, voiced by the same person, through both ears.

The second test he done he played one message through the left ear, and a different message through the right ear, again voiced by the same person.

What he found was that people found it a lot easier in the second test to seperate the two conversations and be able to write down one of those messages.

The cocktail party visually

The original study looked at it from just an audiotary perspective but the same principle could be applied visually as well. For example, if you notice your name when scrolling through a website you are instantly drawn to that because you wonder why is my name being mentioned here?

The point of the cocktail party effect is that it draws our attention away from one thing and we choose to focus in on that one thing. This happens throughout our day, such as notifications on our phone, we could be busy focusing on one task then a notification comes up and draws our attention away from the original task.

Selective attention

One fun example of selective attention is how sometimes as a child (or as an adult) when going on a long road trip you would play spot the car colour. The rules of the game were simply, you would say shout when you see a yellow car or vehicle. We then would filter out all of the other colours and focus on looking for that yellow car.



Michael Gearon

Senior Interaction Designer and Co-Author to Tiny CSS Projects