Music as distraction

Music as distraction – music at work.


open office 2The other day I was reading Julie Beck’s piece “The Optimal Office” in The Atlantic. (April 2014). She discusses Burolandschaft, or ‘office landscape’, those workplaces of ‘open plan’ design, those places with dividers but no doors. As she notes, one important factor in such a design, with its built-in lack of privacy, is noise. No doors and no walls means no way to avoid office noise. Beck refers to a few studies about noise, workplaces, and distraction, so I thought I would follow up on those studies and create a post that looks at the impact of office noise.

One of the earliest studies on the impact of noise on cognitive tasks was done by Furnham and Strbac in 1997. This article opens with an overview of the proven negative effects of noise on cognitive functioning. As you might have guessed, there is a lot of data showing that exposure to noise impairs our cognitive functioning. What is interesting about their work is that they delve further into these negative effects by looking to see if there is a difference in this impact between introverts and extraverts. And guess what they found? “It was predicted that there would be an interaction between personality and background sound on all three tasks: introverts would do less well on all of the tasks than extraverts in the presence of music and noise but in silence performance would be the same…. Results confirmed this prediction. These findings support the Eysenckian hypothesis of the difference in optimum cortical arousal in introverts and extraverts.” (Italics added.) [You can read more on Eysenck’s ideas here.]

introverts So maybe a lot of what this whole blog is about can be tied into personality types? This makes sense, what from I have seen and experienced. Introverts are often the first to notice and then to complain about ‘noise’ around them. (If they are musicians, their complaining starts even more quickly!)

You can access another of Furnham’s later studies here, or at least the abstract. In this article he reports on the effects of background music and/or noise on cognitive performance. Again, the results are worse for introverts.

Another study was done to see if there is a gender difference in how we deal with noise and distraction. Guess what? Women seem to be more able to block out distracting sounds. The abstract of the study states: “Participants spent more time completing the cognitive tasks when in the presence of rock, and made more mistakes when in the presence of noise. This distraction pattern was only found in male participants; female participants were not distracted by background sound.” Read more about this here.

ORSpeaking of distraction: where do you NOT want distracted people? In the operating room! (Forget gender, forget introversion/extroversion. Let’s stay focussed on the job at hand, folk!) There has been a lot of discussion over the years of the impact of listening to music in hospital operating rooms. Here are two opposing positions on this topic.

And finally, back to our original topic of open plan offices and the effects of noise/sound. Here you can watch a short animated video about this.

If you work in an office with an ‘open plan’ layout, you may want to figure out some strategies for dealing with the noises/sounds, especially if you are an introvert. (work from home? Get ear protectors? Ear plugs?) Good luck!

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