The cocktail party effect is where your brain can focus on what is necessary and ignore the rest. For example, when you’re walking down the road, you focus on your path and pay little attention to the rest.
A few weeks back I was out at a bar with a bunch of friends. The floor and the walls buzzed to the beats of the music, colorful lights fluttered around and people all around were tapping their feet to the song.
I was relaxing after a busy week gazing around and sipping on my drink. All of a sudden, I heard a voice call out my name, “Maxim”. I turned around and found an old friend who had arrived at the party late.
The music was loud and commotion around our table was noisy, yet I was able to hear someone call out my name. Was my friend’s voice louder than the sound of music and uproar around? Not at all. Yet, I was able to hear my name.
Such a phenomenon is called the cocktail party effect. It is one of the strange ways your brain operates.
- What is the cocktail party effect?
- Research on the cocktail party effect
- Application and examples of the cocktail party effect in real life:
- How to avoid the cocktail party problem from impacting your life
What is the cocktail party effect?
By definition, the cocktail party effect is the human ability to focus on one stimulus and filter out all the others. As per psychology, it is also referred with other terms like selective attention and inattentional blindness.
For example, if you are talking to one person in a large group, while the others talk among themselves, you can easily hold a conversation. Two people standing next to you might exchange words in a louder voice but your brain filters that out.
Another example: While you are driving, you focus on all cars moving around you, the curvature of the road and the distance from the traffic light. However, you turn a blind eye to an empty billboard that just passed. It was bigger and brighter than any other object in your focal point but your brain ignored it.
The final example, I promise. If you are reading a book, a 6 and a half foot 250-pound bodybuilder might walk past you without your notice. Your book was as big as his palm, but your eyes had shut him off.
In all these examples, your brain chose to focus and ignore certain areas due to the cocktail party effect.
Surprised how the cocktail party effect works? Try the attention test video below on yourself :
Research on the cocktail party effect
The research and experiments on the cocktail party effect, go way back in time to the early 1950s. Colin Cherry started the study based on the problems faced by air traffic controllers. A single speaker played the voices of different pilots. Therefore, the ATC had trouble listening and deciphering what each pilot said.
As an experiment, Cherry recorded two different messages from the same person. He played both the sounds at the same time and asked the subjects to identify what one of the voices said.
The task broke a sweat among the candidates. Some had to close their eyes, squeeze their eyebrows together, hold their temple and replay the sound many times. People managed to complete the task but it took a considerable amount of effort and concentration.
In the second part of the experiment, Cherry played the two sounds to a set of people. This time, a special headset played one sound to one ear and the second voice to the other.
Surprisingly, the task was incredibly simple compared to the first task. Most candidates were able to breeze through the task. Also, Cherry made some interesting observations:
- Candidates had little knowledge about the message played on the other ear
- When he used a different language on the second ear, the change went unnoticed
- Even if he played the second message backward, people failed to realize it
People had managed to filter out all the noise and focus their attention on the thing that mattered.
Application and examples of the cocktail party effect in real life:
In your day to day life, a million things scream for your attention. Some of these things are important, some moderately so, some trivial and some completely useless.
Yet, all of these take a toll on your attention span. If you choose to pay attention to all the events around you, you lose your focus. The situation turns worse if you choose to worry about things you cannot control.
These are the negative consequences of not focusing on the right things:
1. A lot of noise:
Gossip, negative news, natural calamities create a sense of worry in your head. Try as much as you like, but you cannot influence or change them. If you focus on the areas you cannot change with anxiety and stress, the things which matter to you go unnoticed.
Life is no different than being on a date with a pretty lady in a bar. You will encounter more noise than things that matter. You must hold your focus on your partner. If you let the loud music and the tipsy dancers distract you, the chances of a successful date turn scant.
2. Noise pulls your attention in various directions
The needless areas in the cocktail party effect will make a louder noise than things that matter. For example, if you intend to start your venture one day, you face noise in the form of:
- Your daily job
- Parties with friends
- Netflix and Youtube
Your brain has a natural inclination to lean towards these areas because they provide immediate pleasure due to instant gratification. To make it all the more tempting, you do not even need to put in the effort.
On the other hand, to start your venture, you need to put in painstaking energy and time which might yield you a reward in the future.
Your brain screams, “Postpone this. Delay that.” But if you let the noise capture your attention, you lose focus from your long term goals.
3. You turn into a jack of all trades, master of none
My vision for a long time has revolved around building successful businesses. Even though I filter out other noise that distracts me from my goals, I face noise within the area of entrepreneurship itself.
Whenever I trip on a new business opportunity, I feel I must act now. It’s like diving right into the pool without any swimwear.
I have done the same enough number of times, trying to pick up one low hanging fruit after another. As a result, I have gone on a path tangential to my original direction.
Here is the visual on how the cocktail party effect can derail your plans of achieving your goals.
If you focus your energy on all the noise around you, your knowledge in various segments improves. But is that knowledge useful? No value comes out of knowing something unless you put your knowledge to use.
Consider the task of trying to listen to a group when everyone is talking at the same time. You may hear a few words from certain people, but you will never fully understand what each person is talking about. Better hold a genuine conversation with one person than trying to hear the whole group.
Similarly, by channeling your focus on one area that makes a difference in your life and filtering all the noise from the other areas, you earn better returns.
How to avoid the cocktail party problem from impacting your life
1. Identify what is your definition of noise and focus
Consider a new venture, a technical product built by 2 co-founders. One handles operations and sales, while the other heads the technology. Both have a different definition of focus and noise.
For the techie, the concepts of negotiation, sales tactics and networking are noise. His focus lies solely on using the best technology to build a world-class product. The priorities of the other cofounder are exactly the reverse.
Likewise, you need to define what should be your area of focus and what can you ignore. If you know your long term goals already, you are on the right track. If you do not know what to focus on yet, answer these 3 questions to gain some clarity on your long term goals.
Anthony Robbins, explains the Reticular Activation System[RAS] of the human brain in his best selling book, Awaken the Giant Within. RAS is a bunch of brain cells that focus on relevant information and filter out the rest.
For example, when you take a walk to a nearby store, your RAS sets the right focus. It makes sure you move in the right direction and avoids any obstacles which you might bump against. You look at people on the way, but you filter out details such as the color of their clothes or the type of footwear.
If your brain had to process every little piece of information, you would go bonkers. Thanks to your RAS, you only process what is necessary.
The caveat here is, your RAS should know what you intend to focus on. If you lack the clarity, your RAS won’t know what to focus on and what to filter.
If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.Lewis Carroll
2. Have a set of other important areas
When I was clear on my focal point, which was building a successful venture, I had blurred out all the other important aspects. As a result, other key factors that mattered to my goal and life, such as exercise, relationships, self-improvement, and finances took a backseat.
My RAS placed all the weightage on one and only one goal. The other areas which actually mattered were out the window. Needless to say, I experienced the consequences of my negligence. Over time, I realized I cannot program my RAS to ignore everything else completely.
Pat Flynn brings up a great activity in his book Will It Fly to help you identify your areas of focus. As per the activity, you must make 6 columns and write one heading in every column. Each heading is one core area that you care about.
Some examples as headings(in no particular order) are:
- Self Improvement
- Career Growth
Under each heading, write down 5 or more bullets about what is your intended target for the area. For example, you under finances you could list:
- Make 10 million dollars
- Invest in real estate
- Earn 100K passive income a year
Once you write down 5 or more such targets for each area, your brain learns to focus better on those.
3. Filter the noise
Even after you decide what to focus on, your attention can waver from one opportunity to another. Noise does not always show up in negative ways. It can show up in various shapes and forms.
Even a potential opportunity can turn into noise by deviating your focus from the actual goal you have.
You can fall victim to the Shiny object syndrome. As per psychology, it is the phenomenon where you feel like chasing something new instead of staying focused on your current goal.
Chasing different goals repeatedly is like sitting with a lifesaver ring in a stream of flowing water. You bump from one rock to another without having any control over where you reach.
Here are a few tips to identify if you are a victim of the effect. If you answer Yes to at least 2 of them, you might have a strong influence of the shiny object syndrome.
- Do you have many ideas but execute none?
- Do you set new goals often and fail to complete them?
- Do you feel the need to grab every new opportunity?
You have to filter out the noise if you want to focus on your goals. When you keep chasing your original goals, chances are, you will miss out on the bandwagon of an opportunity that passed by. But do not let that bother you.
You will do far more damage by trying to go after every opportunity that shows up. You must trust in your vision and enjoy the journey. You do not need to grab every single opportunity. You just need to hold on to the right one.
Your brain is the most sophisticated among all the living and non-living material that we’re aware of. It does many strange things, one of which is the cocktail party effect.
No scientist has figured out the complete science of the brain. No supercomputer can perform some of the activities the human brain can. No living being can think like you and I do.
Irrespective of how intelligent you consider yourself or what some IQ tests displayed as your score, your brain has mind-blowing potential. But you can utilize its full potential only if you stop letting it function on autopilot.
Make more conscious decisions and feed your brain with the right information. It is only a tool, a powerful one, that relies on you for input.
When you are crystal clear about what you want, your brain will do everything to work in that direction. If you are confused about your goals, your brain ends up confusing you further.
Leave a comment about your story of moving from one target to another instead of persisting with the original goal.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.