Imagine standing at a cocktail party and somewhere your name gets mentioned. Your attention is immediately grabbed by the sound of your name. It is a classic psychological effect with a new twist: old people are immune.
The so-called cocktail party effect has fascinated researchers for a long time. Even though you do not consciously listen to a conversation around you, your own name can grab your attention. That means that unbeknownst to you, you follow the conversations around you. You check them for salient information like your name, and if it occurs you quickly switch attention to where your name was mentioned.
The cocktail party simulated in the lab
In the lab this is investigated slightly differently. Participants listen to one ear and, for example, repeat whatever they hear. Their name is embedded in what they hear coming in to the other (unattended) ear. After the experiment one simply asks ‘Did you hear your own name?’ In a recent paper published by Moshe Naveh-Benjamin and colleagues (in press), around half of the young student participants noticed their name in such a set-up. Compare this to old people aged around 70: next to nobody (only six out of 76 participants) noticed their name being mentioned in the unattended ear.
Why this age difference? Do old people simply not hear well? Unlikely, when the name was played to the ear that they attended to, 45% of old people noticed their names. Clearly, many old people can hear their names, but they do not notice their names if they do not pay attention to this. Young people do not show such a sharp distinction. Half the time they notice their names, even when concentrating on something else.
Focusing the little attention that is available
Naveh-Benjamin and colleagues instead suggest that old people simply have less attention. When they focus on a conversation, they give it their everything. Nothing is left for the kind of unconscious checking of conversations which young people can do so well.
At the next cocktail party you can safely gossip about your old boss. Just avoid mentioning the name of the young new colleague who just started.
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Naveh-Benjamin M, Kilb A, Maddox GB, Thomas J, Fine HC, Chen T, & Cowan N (2014). Older adults do not notice their names: A new twist to a classic attention task. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition PMID: 24820668
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By Financial Times (Patrón cocktail bar) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons