At a crowded party, your partner's voice is easiest to hear — and to ignore

Across the room at a crowded holiday party, we can easily hear our longtime partner’s voice above the din. And we can, just as easily, ignore it.

A recent study takes a unique look at an aspect of the “cocktail party effect” — psychologists’ term for our ability to focus attention in on a single conversation in a room full of noisy conversations. Specifically, the researchers were curious to learn if we’re better at sifting through the voices of strangers to pick out a very familiar voice — that of our husband or wife. And we are — we’re great at it. When we want to be, that is, says lead researcher Ingrid Johnsrude.

“People were amazingly good at hearing their spouse when their spouse was the target voice,” says Johnsrude, a cognitive neuroscientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Johnsrude studied 23 couples, ranging in age from 44 to 79 years old, all of whom had been married for at least 18 years. All of them were about equally good at hearing their partner against a competing stranger's voice, no matter the age — the people in their 70s were just as skilled as those in their 40s, despite the fact that hearing tends to decline with age, Johnsrude says.

“So when they choose to, people can target and report what their partner was saying,” she says. The key phrase there: “when they choose to.” Because as skilled as we are at tuning in to our partner’s voice, we are equally skilled at tuning it out, the study finds. The middle-aged couples — up to about age 60 — were able to ignore their spouse’s voice when they were told to focus on the voice of a stranger instead.  

Each person recorded themselves reading a set of 128 sentences. Later, they put on headphones and listened to three voices played at once: their partner's, plus the voices of two strangers. They were asked to report what their partner was saying, and then they were asked to report what one of the unfamiliar voices was saying. 

All the participants, no matter the age, tended to be very accurate at reporting what their spouse was saying. And when they were asked to concentrate on one of the unfamiliar voices, the middle-aged couples were better at focusing on the stranger's voice when their partner was talking at the same time. 

Johnsrude gives a real-life example. “You’re at a party and you’re trying to listen to a stranger who’s talking to you, a very interesting stranger — and at the same time your partner is yammering away,” Johnsrude says. “This suggests you can ignore what your partner is saying so as to focus in on what that very interesting stranger is saying.”

Johnsrude’s research didn’t look at the reasons why this might happen, but she has some theories.

“When a voice is that familiar — and spouse voices are extremely familiar — this is the first voice you hear every morning, and the last voice you hear every night, for 18 years or more,” she says. “So that deep familiarity seems to allow us to organize sound sources.” Part of the “cocktail party” concept is the idea that our brains are able to separate different sounds into category — that’s music, that’s street traffic, that’s a conversation. And the more familiar the sound is, this study suggests, the easier you’re able to pick it up when you want to — or let it fade into the background.

Because it was harder for the older listeners to tune out their partner's voice, studies like this one suggest that "in the future, the design of hearing aids may have to include understanding how the aid can assist cognitive as well as auditory processing," says William Yost, a professor in speech and hearing science at Arizona State University, who was not involved in Johnsrude's study. 

But just like this doesn’t hold true for older couples, this doesn’t seem to be true for newlyweds or newly dating couples, either. Currently, Johnsrude is doing a study looking at this idea in couples who’ve been together for five years or less. It’s still early in the research process, but she’s finding that in the hazy days of new love, it’s much harder to ignore your partner’s voice, even when you want to.

“Not only could these younger people not ignore their spouse, they would make mistakes,” she says. “When they were trying to attend to a novel talker, they would report the [stranger's] voice as their partner’s. Which was, we thought, a rather romantic turn of events.”