Old people are immune against the cocktail party effect

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.

Someone mention my name?

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 (, via Wikimedia Commons


How your Name Influences your Life

What’s the point in name change? – Life change?

Names are words.


This may be a completely obvious statement if it wasn’t for what it entails. First of all, words have to be pronounced. Secondly, words carry meaning. Both properties change how words are used. A bunch of studies has recently shown that these properties also influence how the people behind names are perceived. In essence, names open up the door for biases, misperceptions and prejudices.


Be careful, if your name happens to be Mohammed Vougiouklakis you may not like what you’re about to read.


Firstly, pronunciation is important. If a word is unpronounceable, it never enters a community’s language. Turns out people whose names are unpronounceable also have trouble in the community. Laham and colleagues (2012) asked Australian undergraduates to rate how good a fictional local council candidate was. Participants read a fake local news article which was always the same except for the surname of the candidate which was either difficult to pronounce (Vougiouklakis, Leszczynska) or easy (Lazaridis, Paradowska). Easy to pronounce candidates were rated better.
In another experiment, Laham and colleagues looked at the hierarchy within real US American law firms. Pronounceability was associated with the lawyer’s position in the firm’s hierarchy. This was found even just for the subset of names which were Anglo-American, likewise for the foreign name sample. So, the more easily pronounceable the name, the better your career prospects.
It is worth appreciating how weird this outcome is. People did not rate names but instead the people who carry the names. Furthermore, they had a wealth of information about them and one may think that name pronunciation is a very unimportant bit of information that is simply ignored. Nonetheless, even though it should be completely irrelevant for success name pronunciation appears to shape people’s lives.
Secondly, words have meaning. The most important meaning of a name is what it says about the community you are from. It signifies gender, ethnicity, race, region, etc. One widely known American study is Bertrand and Mullainathan’s (2004) job application study in which real job adverts were answered with fake resumes only differing in terms of name. Black sounding names (Lakisha Washington) received less call-backs than white sounding names (Emily Walsh). Furthermore, application quality was not important for black sounding names while it did change call-back rates for white sounding names.
If you are from Europe (like me) and you feel like racism is oh so American (somewhat like me before I wrote this post), bear in mind that the main finding has been replicated with local ethnic minority names in many European countries:

If he is called Tobias (rather than Fatih) he gets 14% more call-backs on applications.


Britain – Muhammed Kalid vs. Andrew Clarke (Wood et al., 2009)
France – Bakari Bongo vs. Julien Roche (Cediey and Foroni, 2008)
Germany – Fatih Yildiz vs. Tobias Hartmann (Kaas and Manger, 2011)
Greece – Nikolai Dridanski vs. Ioannis Christou (Drydakis and Vlassis, 2010)
Netherlands – Mohammed vs. Henk (Derous et al., 2012)
Ireland (McGinnity and Lunn, 2011)
Sweden – Ali Said vs. Erik Andersson (Carlsson and Rooth, 2007)


This is really just evidence for old fashioned discrimination in the job market. But it says more than that. In the American study, getting additional qualifications is worth it for whites while it did not have a significant impact on call-back rates for blacks. Thus, similarly to the pronunciation effect above, additional information does not reduce the effect of the obviously irrelevant name characteristics. Instead, in the case of Bertrand and Mullainathan’s study, additional information of application quality even exacerbated the race difference.
The take-home message is that people take in all sorts of objectively irrelevant information – like names – and use it to make their choices. These choices are more likely to go against you if your name is difficult to pronounce or foreign sounding. People make choices about names and these choices affect the people behind the names.
So, what is there to do? If you really want to treat people fairly, i.e. give people an equal chance independent of the names they were given or have chosen, give them a number. Because – and this will sound terribly obvious – numbers aren’t words.
Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. The American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1025. doi: 10.1257/0002828042002561
Carlsson, M., & Rooth, D.-O. (2007). Evidence of ethnic discrimination in the Swedish labor market using experimental data. Labour Economics, 14, 716–729. doi: 10.1016/j.labeco.2007.05.001
Cediey, E., & Foroni, F. (2008). Discrimination in Access to Employment on Grounds of Foreign Origin in France. ILO International Migration Paper 85E, International Labour Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
Derous, E., Ryan, A.M., Nguyen, H.-H. D. (2012). Multiple categorization in resume screening: Examining effects on hiring discrimination against Arab applicants in field and lab settings. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33, 544-570. doi: 10.1002/job.769
Drydakis, N., & Vlassis, M. (2010). Ethnic discrimination in the greek labour market: occupational access, insurance coverage and wage offers. The Manchester School, 78(3), 201–218. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9957.2009.02132.x
Kaas, L., & Manger, C. (2011). Ethnic Discrimination in Germany’s Labour Market: A Field Experiment. German Economic Review 13(1): 1–20.
Laham, S.M., Koval, P., Alter, A.L. (2012). The name-pronunciation effect: Why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(3), 752-756. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.12.002
McGinnity, F., & Lunn, P.D. (2011). Measuring discrimination facing ethnic minority job applicants: an Irish experiment. Work Employment Society, 25(4), 693-708. doi: 10.1177/0950017011419722
Wood, M., Hales, J., Purdon, S., Sejersen, T., & Hayllar, O. (2009). A Test for Racial Discrimination in Recruitment Practice in British Cities. Department for Work and Pensions Research Report No. 607.

1) Muhammad Ali by Ira Rosenberg

2) as found in Kaas, L., & Manger, C. (2011). Ethnic Discrimination in Germany’s Labour Market: A Field Experiment. German Economic Review 13(1): 1–20.