Yes, Dear?

Loving husbands and wives may only have eyes for each other. Their ears may be another story.

New research in the journal Psychological Science suggests spouses generally do a better job of picking each other’s voices out in a crowd. To test this, researchers asked people to pick out what their spouse said when a competing, unfamiliar voice was speaking. The researchers also asked some people to pick out what the unfamiliar person was saying.

Spouses aged 44 to 79 generally did much better at understanding their spouses’ words when a stranger was speaking. Yet when asked to focus on what someone else was saying, middle-aged people did a better job than the elderly in ignoring their spouses to listen to an unfamiliar voice.

“These findings speak to a problem that is very common amongst older individuals—difficulty hearing speech when there is background sound,” said Queens University’s Ingrid Johnsrud in a press release announcing the results. “Our study identifies a cognitive factor—voice familiarity—that could help older listeners to hear better in these situations.”

Additional trials might better test the hypothesis. For example, did middle-age speakers also perform better at picking out one unfamiliar speaker’s words when a competing speaker was also unfamiliar? If so, how much better?

Also, how familiar would the other speaker have to be in order for his or her words to be easier to discern than a stranger’s? Would it need to be a close relative or good friend? Or would it be enough to have heard the voice several times before?

I suspect that what’s being said also makes a difference.

Several times I’ve found myself in a store or other public place when a child suddenly says, “Mom!” Even though my own kids are older, I still find my head turning towards the sound—along with those of several other women.

I guess it just goes with the territory of being a mom.


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