Many workplaces allow the playing of radio or recorded music during working hours, providing a chance to personalise and brighten the working climate. But how does music affect our ability to perform tasks at work? And does this depend on the kind of person we are? A recent study by a team from University College London sheds more light on this topic.
Stacey Dobbs, Adrian Furnham and Alastair McClelland worked with 118 female schoolchildren (aged 11-18) to investigate how tasks that demand focus are influenced by different kinds of auditory distraction administered over headphones. They developed two soundtracks, one composed of samples of environmental sound like children playing and laughter, and the other a mix of UK garage music. (I'll spare you the embarrassment of reading me trying to describe that.) They also wanted to know whether extraversion had any influence, following previous findings that suggest more introverted people suffer more from auditory distraction, as they are more easily overwhelmed by strong stimuli.
The participants attempted different tasks under the various conditions, and slightly different effects emerged. On a test of abstract reasoning, the participants did best under conditions of silence, and scores suffered less due to music than experiencing noise, when performance was lowest. But the penalties from auditory distraction diminished as extraversion increased, and the most extraverted students performed just as strongly in all conditions. On a test of general cognitive ability, and another of verbal reasoning, the silence and music conditions were comparable, with noise again leading to worst performance. Again, higher extraversion eliminated the penalty from noise.
We should always be careful generalising from a narrow sample (children) to another, although the extraversion effect has been observed before in adult groups (and it's also true that children do form part of our workforce). That said, it's interesting that noise was more disruptive than music across all tasks. The authors suggest that may be partly due to it lacking the positive emotional influence that music can provide; noise isn't designed to delight. They also draw attention to earlier work by the first author, which suggests that the most distracting music is that very familiar to the user. This suggests that an eclectic radio station, or a large and varied play-list, may be a viable alternative to wrestling with background chatter, or slapping that well-worn U2 record on. Again.
Dobbs, S., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2011). The effect of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25 (2), 307-313 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1692