Open workplaces are all the rage in today’s non-traditional, compulsively disruptive corporate culture. Gone are the spacious, private offices and confining cubicles. Instead, in many democratic startups, CEOs and junior hires sit in a cafeteria-style space, breathing the same un-rarefied air.
They’re also hearing the same amount of chatter, as open-air work environments amplify noise. The extra noise, according to a new study, affects how well we process and make meaning of the words we hear.
From previous research in cognitive hearing science — which concerns the impact of noise on auditory understanding and cognitive processing — we know that people have more trouble processing words when background noise makes those words hard to identify. The underlying theory says that, by devoting finite brain resources to hearing words, we have fewer left to interpret their meaning.
The new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, goes a step further by showing that background noise still burdens cognitive processing even when people can easily make out words. To demonstrate the diminished capacity to analyze words-in-noise — a theory termed “effortful listening” — researchers set up an experiment to test working memory, a set of skills that collectively deal with absorbing and processing new information simultaneously.
Thirty-one study volunteers, all Swedish adults with normal hearing, donned headphones and listened to 10 lists of 36 recorded words. Some of the words, spoken one at a time, played over background noise while others didn’t. Even the words-in-noise, however, were easy to make out. After hearing each word-list, participants wrote down as many words as they remembered, in the order the words came to them.
The content and structure of the word-lists varied. Some lists were made up solely of words united by one, unmentioned theme — e.g., a list including sleep-related words like “bed, tired, snore,” but not the word “sleep” itself. Other lists combined words associated with a few different themes, such as sleep, anger, and food.
Researchers were looking to see if, in recalling words, participants exhibited habits including false recall and clustering. In this case, false recall refers to a participant incorrectly believing they heard the word “sleep,” even though it didn’t actually appear in the list. False recall would indicate inferential thinking indicative of more sophisticated cognitive processing.
The teams also intentionally didn’t cluster thematically associated words in lists made up of words from multiple themes. So, for example, if the themes were sleep, anger, and food, a list may have have been: “bed, frown, apple, tired, fuming, banana.” Participants who, upon recall, clustered (without being told to) would have written down: “bed, tired, frown, fuming, apple, banana.” Like false recall, the tendency to cluster suggests someone is actively interpreting, and making sense of, the words they hear rather than mindlessly regurgitating them.
As predicted, when participants heard words played over noise, they didn’t cluster or engage in false recall; instead, they relayed what they’d heard verbatim without that extra level of unconscious analysis. When words weren’t played over noise, however, participants did cluster and falsely recall.
The results suggested that the presence of noise “adversely affects the encoding, storage and processing of spoken information,” even when that noise doesn’t make the information difficult to hear. Overall, researchers took the findings to mean that noisy environments particularly affect cognition.
So, while it may seem socially odd to set up open offices where everyone wears noise-canceling headphones and communicates via Slack rather than, you know, talking out loud, that unnerving quiet could also benefit the thinking processes so critical to disrupting markets in the first place.