A Spouse's Voice Rings Loudest in a Crowded Room

Photo: People at a restaurant talking

You're at a crowded party, and two voices are competing for your attention: one from your spouse, the other from a stranger. Who are you most likely to hear? Your spouse, according to new research.

So which voice are you most likely to ignore? Your spouse, but that depends on how long you have been married. If you are middle-aged, your spouse's voice is easier to hear, and easier to ignore. But the ability to ignore declines with age.

That seemingly odd finding makes sense to Canadian researchers at Queen's University who put 23 married couples, ages 44 to 79, through 600 trials to explore how familiarity affects the human auditory system. But there's kind of a quirky edge to the finding.

Middle-aged couples, 44 to 60, were able to turn off a spouse's voice in favor of a voice they had never heard before.

But older couples, 60 to 79, favored the voice of their long-term spouse and couldn't ignore it.

Why would spouses not be able to turn off the voice of someone they had listened to for such a long time, while someone who had been married only a couple of decades could easily listen to the voice of a stranger instead?

Ingrid Johnsrude, lead author of a paper in the journal Psychological Science, offered via email a "best guess" as to why older folks have more difficulty than younger people ignoring the sounds of a mate.

She suggested it may take more cognitive processing to favor a stranger's voice over a very familiar voice, and as we age, our cognitive abilities gradually decline.

"As people get older, they have fewer 'spare' attentional or cognitive resources," she said, and it may simply drain those resources to listen enough to a familiar voice to determine that the stranger has something more interesting to say.

"Younger people can process the familiar voice enough to ignore it," she said.

Many older people who suffer from normal hearing loss complain of how difficult it is to hear anything when packed into a crowded space with a bunch of other people. So perhaps a familiar voice rings loud and clear, and a stranger's voice may have nuances that make it more difficult to understand.

The researchers attempted to minimize problems like that by ensuring that the stranger's voice was from someone about the same age, and the same gender, as the spouse of each participant in the study.

There is evidence in the research that aging makes it easier for us to understand a familiar voice better than a stranger's. Participants were asked questions about the statements made by both spouses and strangers, and older spouses got it right far more often if the voice was from a spouse than from a stranger. There was no difference in the error rate among middle-aged spouses.

"Errors that our participants made were overwhelmingly of the wrong-voice (unfamiliar) type" among older participants, the study notes.

The experiment was designed to imitate real-life situations in which two voices compete at the same time for a listener's attention. The participants were told which voice they were supposed to listen to, the voice of a stranger or of their spouse.

"When our listeners were trying to hear their spouse, when a stranger was the interfering voice, they were really good. Really amazingly good," Johnsrude said. That held for all participants, whether old or young.

But it was a very different story when told to listen to a voice they had not heard before.

"Consistent with the 'it all gets worse as you age' idea, we found that the older people got, the worse they did at reporting what a stranger said," she added. "However, there was no change with age when we asked people to report what their partner said.

"Those in their late 70s were just as good as those in their mid-40s. So older people can, and do, use what they know about their partner's voice to hear it better, and this is a huge help, we think," she said.

When she released the study, she put it this way: "The benefit of familiarity is very large."

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