Monday, 3 October 2011

Noise and music are more distracting to introverts at work

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.

ResearchBlogging.orgDobbs, 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


  1. I will take this as further confirmation that I am an introvert. I find it hard to do much of anything while subjected to most kinds of noise and music, although I would have bet that children laughing in the distance would be far less annoying to me than garage music (although I can well imagine there are generational issues at work here too). For me, the worst things are TV ads (in the doctor's office? really??) and rhythmic things like hammering, dogs barking, ticking clocks, boom cars, etc. I completely lose my train of thought, not to mention my cool....

    Um, what was I saying? Oh, right--the resistance of extraversion to distraction seems interesting to me though, since it is often defined in terms of the environment: eg "concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self". So I might think they would be *more* distracted by what's going am I wrong in how I understand extra vs intro?

  2. Hi Nora

    Glad the post has struck a chord with you! One popular theory of extraversion originates with Hans Eysenck: it suggests that introverts are easily overstimulated, with the contents of their inner world often enough to satiate them. Extroverts, meanwhile, are outwardly oriented because they are hungry for more stimulation, which has a comparably modest effect on them in terms of 'arousal'.

    So they are looking for gratification for outside, but for the amount of arousal that background music offers, they just get a bit of a boost, making them happy but not overwhelming them. The introvert didn't need the arousal, and is really affected by it to the degree that it distracts them from what they wanted to be doing.

    I hope that's useful, Nora. The phenomena of extraversion is sometimes described in slightly different ways, but this is the interpretation that the authors were following when they made their predictions.


  3. This post partially meets up with my subjective experience, apart from the music bit. I play music at work sometimes in my head phones to cut down on other distractions and I feel that it helps. Some music helps more than others, and novel music is too distracting.

    Maybe I'd have to try some tasks to see if my subjective experience lines up with reality.

    I wonder if they'd find different results if they allow the subjects to select their own play list?

    Ps. Do you remember the Star Fighter movie from the 80s? I guess that guy was an extrovert. :)

  4. Oops, forgot to mention that I am introverted by subjective measure as well as by results on myers-briggs tests (we've had them administered at work a couple of times).

  5. This is very much inline with my undergrad study - I tested reaction times at different noise levels and correlated against Eysenck's EPI - more details and a pretty graph here:

    The author's acknowledgement of the emotional influence of music cannot be understated. In developing the research for her Phd., Dr. Anneli Haake did an extensive study into music in the workplace. She found the most critical component in whether background music helps performance is whether the subject has control over the environment.

    Developments in the last 20 years in the portability and delivery of music (think digital, streaming, headphones, MP3 players, Pro-tools, etc) have resulted in music being much more prevalent in society. I think people who study and investigate the relationship between human beings and music are going to generate a lot of interest in the coming years.

  6. skm, I think you're own experience matches fairly well with what was found in this study sample - after all, you find music less disruptive than other distractions, as did the participants here.

    Interesting about your response to novel music. I wonder if there is an interaction with things like catchiness or audibility of lyrics? For myself, I listen to a lot of pretty heavy stuff, where a lot of the vocals are unintelligible on first listen.

    Andrew, I definitely agree, particularly on your last point. Interesting site, too!

  7. very nice
    best regards:

  8. Great study. Unfortunately, many managers especially from big companies don't give too much importance to this issue.

  9. Well, I am an introvert but I didn't distract with music noises.