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Auditory Attention

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Auditory Attention

Auditory attention is a widely researched cognitive process to understand how selective attention occurs in the auditory system.

Selective auditory attention is the ability to focus on one audio stimulus that interests the person whilst ignoring others.

Cherry (1953) and Moray (1959) conducted significant research in this field, and developed

auditory attention tests.

Cherry’s (1953) research on auditory attention

Cherry (1953) investigated selective attention to different sounds. Cherry developed two

auditory attention test procedures:

  1. Mixed speech – participants heard two mixed speeches at the same time. The participant had to shadow and repeat one of the messages.

  2. Dichotic listening a participant listened to a continuous message in one ear and repeated it aloud. Another audio clip was played in the other ear.

The shadowing ensures that participants perceive the intended message and ‘reject’ the other message.

In the mixed speech experiment, Cherry found that people had great difficulty distinguishing what they heard. In the shadowing experiment, they could recall more information from the attended message than from the ‘rejected’ message.

For example, in the shadowing methods, some did not recognise that the language in the ‘rejected’ message changed from English to German. However, physical changes in voice, such as the gender of the speaker, were usually noticed.

Cherry concluded people decide which auditory stimuli to pay attention to based on physical characteristics such as the gender of the voice or the location of the speaker. He proposed the ‘cocktail party effect’ to explain how selective attention can shift.

The cocktail party effect explains an example of auditory attention in the context of a party. When someone is in the middle of a conversation with their friends, they pay attention to that conversation. However, if they suddenly hear their name from the opposite side of the room, their attention will be focused on the person who called their name and not on the conversation.

What did Moray (1959) research?

Moray conducted three experiments to learn more about selective attention. The first experiment was designed to confirm Cherry’s (1953) results. The two later experiments were aimed at learning more about the factors that influence selective attention.

Experiment 1

Research design

  • The study was conducted in a laboratory and used a repeated measures design.

  • The study used a dichotic listening task in one ear, participants heard a message. In the other ear, a short list of simple words was heard repeatedly (this was the ‘rejected’ message).

    • Participants had to shadow the message they heard.

    • The volume of both audio stimuli was the same.

    • The list of words faded in and out and played a total of 35 times.

  • The participant then recalled the list of words (the ‘rejected’ message).

  • Thirty seconds later, participants performed a recognition test. The test consisted of the following tasks:

    1. Seven words included in the shadowed message.

    2. Seven words contained in the ‘rejected message’.

    3. Seven words that did not appear in either message but sounded similar (control condition).

Results

Variables (dependent and control) Average of words recognised
Shadowed message4.9
‘Rejected’ list of words 1.9
Control variable 2.6

Conclusions

The results support Cherry’s findings, as more words were recognised from the shadowed message. This finding suggests participants found it difficult to engage with the ‘rejected’ message.

Experiment 2

Research design

  • This experiment recruited 12 participants. It was conducted in a laboratory setting using a repeated-measures experimental design.

  • There were ten trials. A fictional passage was presented in one ear on each trial, and a rejected message was presented in the other ear.

    • Participants had to shadow the fictional passage.

    • Both passages contained instructions.

    • Participants were told not to make mistakes.

  • The rejected messages played to participants sometimes included the participants’ names. Here is an example: ‘Listen to your right ear/All right, you may stop now. Listen to your right ear/John Smith, you may stop now.’

  • Moray was interested in whether participants were more likely to hear and remember the rejected passages if the passages contained their names.

Results

Instructions with the participants’ namesInstructions without the participants names
Number of times presented 3936
Number of times heard 204

Conclusions

The findings from this experiment may explain the cocktail party effect. The results suggest people shift their attention to a different auditory stimulus when they hear affective cues (a cue that elicits an emotional response) such as their name.

Experiment 3

Research design

  • The study was conducted in a laboratory setting and used an independent measures design.
  • Participants were divided into two groups of 14 subjects each.
    • Dichotic audio clips were played to both groups, and they had to shadow one of the messages they heard.
  • The tasks given to the participants were:
    1. Group one was told that they would answer questions about the shadowed passage at the end of each message.
    2. Group two was told to try and remember all the digits they heard.
  • The messages varied:
    • Some digits were added at the end.
    • Some had no digits.
    • Some had digits only in the shadowed message.
    • Some had digits only in the ‘rejected’ message.
  • In the end, participants had to try to recall the digits they could remember.
  • Moray wanted to find out if participants would be more likely to remember the digits if they were asked to look for them specifically.

Results

  • A t-test revealed no significant difference between the means of the two groups.

Conclusion

The results of Experiment 3 show that nonaffective stimuli (numbers) do not cause people to shift their attention.

What can we learn from Moray’s findings?

Moray’s study shows that when we focus our attention on a message, almost nothing from the ‘rejected’ message can get through to our attention. However, some important stimuli, such as a person’s name, can overcome this block.

Evaluation of Moray (1959)

Moray’s research aimed to confirm and build upon existing research in psychology, more specifically, selective attention. The purpose of the research is to improve our understanding of psychological processes. Therefore, this research is significant. However, when concluding research, it is important to consider strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths

The strengths of the research are:

  • The use of shadowing techniques can increase the internal validity of the research.

    • This ensures that people focus their attention on the intended message rather than the message to be ‘rejected’.

  • Similar results between Moray and Cherry mean that the results are reliable.

Limitations

The weaknesses of the research are:

  • Low ecological validity.

    • Moray did the study in a lab. As this is an artificial setting participants behaviour may be different than if it was done in a real-life setting. This reduces the validity of the experiment.

  • The sample is non-generalisable.

    • The first study did not describe the sample used. The following two experiments used a small sample. The problem with small samples is that they are not representative of the wider population. This leads to generalisability issues.

Auditory Attention - Key takeaways

  • Selective auditory attention is the ability to focus on one audio stimulus that interests the person whilst ignoring others.
  • Cherry (1959) and Moray (1959) conducted major research in this field.
  • The major contributions Cherry made were:
    • Dichotic and shadowing research techniques.
    • He found that people are better able to recognise words from their shadowed messages.
    • The cocktail-party theory people select which auditory stimuli to pay attention to based on physical characteristics such as gender of voice and location of the speaker.
  • The major contributions of Moray (1959):
    • Confirmed the results of Cherry’s research.
    • He investigated other factors that influence selective auditory attention.
    • Moray concluded that when we focus our attention on a message, almost none of the ‘rejected’ messages can get through to our attention. However, some important stimuli, such as a person’s name, can overcome this block.

Frequently Asked Questions about Auditory Attention

Auditory attention span is how long a person can focus on an audible stimulus. 

Moray (1959) recruited students and people in the research team. 

According to Broadbent’s filter theory of attention, stimuli is initially filtered, then selected and finally attended to. 

The aim of Moray’s (1959) research was to confirm and elaborate on Cherry’s (1959) research. 

We can increase auditory attention by focusing on the stimuli. 

Final Auditory Attention Quiz

Question

What is selective auditory attention?

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Answer

Selective auditory attention is the ability to focus on an audio stimulus that interests the person whilst ignoring others. 

Show question

Question

Who proposed the cocktail party effect?

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Answer

Cherry (1953).

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Question

What did both Cherry and Moray find?

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Answer

Both researchers found people could recall more information from the attended message than the ‘rejected’ message. 

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Question

What do similar results from the two researchers infer?

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Answer

Similar findings from two studies infer the results are reliable. 

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Question

Which of Moray’s (1959) experiments found similar results to Cherry?

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Answer

Experiment 1.

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Question

Which of Moray’s (1959) experiments provide supporting explanations of the cocktail party effect? 

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Answer

Experiment 1.

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Question

Is the following statement true or false: ‘Cherry and Moray’s (1959) Experiment 1 used a similar research design’? 

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Answer

True.

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Question

Which of Moray's research used a repeated-measures design?

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Answer

Experiment 1.

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Question

How do affective cues affect following instructions in ‘rejected’ messages?

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Answer

Participants are more likely to follow instructions when affective cues versus non-affective cues are included

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Question

What are the strengths of Moray’s research?

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Answer

The strengths of the research are:

  • Results are reliable as Moray and Cherry found similar results.
  • High internal validity.

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Question

What are the weaknesses of Moray’s research?

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Answer

The weaknesses of the research are:

  • Low ecological validity. 
  • Findings are non-generalisable due to the small sample.

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Question

In Moray’s second experiment, which condition did participants follow more instructions of the ‘rejected’ message? 

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Answer

Affective cues.

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Question

What did Moray find in the third experiment?

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Answer

Non-significant differences between mean scores of both groups tested.

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Question

In which condition of experiment one (Moray, 1959), did participants recognise more words?

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Answer

Shadowed message.

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Question

What is shadowing? 

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Answer

Shadowing is when a participant listens to a continuous message while repeating it aloud.

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Question

What is the purpose of the shadowing research technique? 

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Answer

The shadowing method aims to ensure that people attend to the intended message and ‘reject’ the other audio.

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