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COLVIN, S. D. (2006). Does Noise Sensitivity Affect a Reader`s Concentration?. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 9. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 28, 2023 .

Does Noise Sensitivity Affect a Reader`s Concentration?

Sponsored by: PATRICIA MARSH (pmarsh1@missouriwestern.edu)
This study examined if having noise sensitivity affects a reader’s concentration during different time patterns of noise. Twenty-two students from general psychology 101 classes were randomly assigned into one of the three noise conditions: no noise, irregular intermittent, and continuous. Participants were asked to read a short story and take a quiz during the various levels of noise in each condition. They were asked to fill out questionnaires on both noise sensitivity and how easy or difficult it was to concentrate while reading. The results show a significant difference in concentration between the intermittent (lower concentration) and no noise (higher concentration) conditions. Results also show that a negative correlation exists between noise sensitivity and the ability to concentrate while reading.

Noises can intrude upon many activities that people are doing and may cause problems such as, irritability, mood swings, and lack of concentration if reading. Mostly, these emotions come from people who are sensitive to noise, in which they can perceive the noise of a neighbor playing drums, or their stereo as, too loud, annoying, and distracting. Leisure activities such as, watching television, reading, or sleeping can affect people who are sensitive to noise by making them irritable if sleeping, distracted if watching television, and a lack of concentration, if reading. There are many ways to block out an annoying noise, for example, people can turn their television up to drown out the noise of neighbors playing drums. Or they can put on headphones and listen to music. Blocking out noises that are perceived as annoying is not necessarily the problem. The problem is when people want to read and they have the television or radio volume up to block out that annoying buzzing light, leaf blower or the neighbor’s loud music. Thus, people have to deal with not being able to concentrate on their reading because now the television or radio may be too loud. In addition, a good show or song comes on, which increases the likelihood of being distracted if it is one of their favorite old movies or a great song. Hence, the problem is not drowning out the noise, but rather being able to concentrate while reading with the new noise. Most people can get used to noises that are continuous such as the television volume, because once they have the volume set to drown out a particular noise the sound of the television fades away. That is, we adapt to the sensory information and no longer perceive it. On the other hand, what do people do when certain noises creep up at irregular intermittent times that create new and unexpected distractions? Adjusting to unpredictable distractions is not as easy because people are more aware of the new noises, especially those noises that the television or song is suddenly not drowning out anymore. Those who are sensitive to noise also have a good chance of becoming irritated with the current activity they are doing, because of the unpredictable nature of the noise (i.e., intermittent). In Daniel Vastfjall’s (2002) study of annoyance and sensitivity to noise, people who are in a bad mood respond more negatively to noise than those who are not. Job (1988, 1999), Stansfeld (1992), and Taylor (1984) reveal that “a major factor contributing to individual differences in noise perception is noise sensitivity” (as cited in Vastfjall, 2002, p. 358). The researchers are suggesting that because people show different responses, such as a negative or positive response to particular noises, that their reaction is based on whether or not they are sensitive to noise. Zimmer & Ellermeier (1999) clarify that the more sensitive people are to noise, the more annoyed they react (as cited in Vastfjall, 2002). In Vastfjall’s (2002) study, he examined how “current mood influences reactions and evaluations of everyday sounds” (p. 360). Vastfjall’s study consisted of 44 undergraduates who volunteered to participate at Chalmers and Goteborg University. Among the participants 26 were men and 18 were women, with a mean age of 27.4 years. This sample was older than the typical college age student (i.e., mean age of 19-22).Two weeks before Vastfjall’s (2002) study began, he asked those willing to participate to rate different machine-specific noises, such as a hand-held machine saw, and to complete a Swedish version of the Weinstein Noise Sensitivity Scale, measuring from (1) not at all to (7) very much. The higher scores indicate that participants are more sensitive to noise. When Vastfjall’s study began two weeks later, he placed participants into two different conditions. One condition was a neutral mood, the other being an annoyed/negative mood condition. Participants in the neutral mood group were asked to use the Velten procedure, which is to state sentences such as, “Paris is the capital of France,” to induce a neutral mood (p. 362). Vastfjall then had participants who were to be induced into annoyed/negative mood recall a negative memory and write it down. Vastfjall’s (2002) participants once in the specific induced mood were asked to listen to different machine sounds while they completed the same noise sensitivity scale they had taken two weeks prior. Vastfjall’s study revealed that mood is an important factor in how a person reacts to noise, regardless if they were sensitive or insensitive to noise, because if a person is irritated or annoyed, they will make a more negative evaluation of a perceived annoying noise. Surprisingly, Vastfjall’s results reveal that people who are insensitive to noise when induced into a negative state respond more negatively than those sensitive to noise, which are also induced into a negative state. This result seems to go against what we would normally expect. That is, we would expect people who are sensitive to noise, when induced into a negative state, to respond more negatively than those insensitive to noise. Vastfjall explains that people who are sensitive to noise have a wider range of responses, because they live and judge noises on a daily basis. Whereas, those insensitive to noise, do not judge noise the same, therefore, they do not have a wide range of responses for annoying noise as those sensitive to noise. Therefore, when exposed to very unpleasant sounds (noise), non-sensitive people will report the most negative response available.Regardless who responds to noise more negatively, those who are sensitive to noise have a more difficult time adapting to noise in the environments in which they live (Weinstein, 1978). For people living in a dormitory, Davis and Roizen (1970) explain how “noise is consistently reported as the most serious problem in college student housing” (as cited in Weinstein, 1978, p. 459). Weinstein’s (1978) study looks at how freshman adapt to noise throughout a year of school and their different reactions to noise. Weinstein administered his 21-item noise sensitivity scale to a total of 155 incoming freshman attending Cook College at Rutgers. Both male and female incoming students, who were going to be living in the dormitory, were sent the scale via mail the summer before the semester started. After the freshman responded to the scale through mail, Weinstein determined that 24 students would belong in the sensitive group, and 31 students in the insensitive group. Weinstein’s sample represented a 35% response rate. Participants were interviewed 4-6 weeks after school had started (Time 1) about various dormitory problems such as, preferences to noise, privacy, and roommates. At the end of April (Time 2), participants took the same noise sensitivity scale as they did during the summer, along with reporting disturbances in the dormitory. Weinstein’s results showed that “mean scores at Times 1 and 2, respectively, were 26.25 and 29.83 for the sensitive group and 23.19 and 23.13 for the insensitive group” (p. 460); higher scores indicate noise sensitivity. Weinstein’s study shows that people, who are sensitive to noise, will have a harder time adapting into a new environment. Therefore, they will have more difficulty over the course of the semester to adapt, as compared to those insensitive to noise.If moods can have an effect on how a person interprets the annoyance of a noise, and noise can have an effect on people sensitive to noise and their ability to adapt into new environments. What effect does noise have on different non-auditory tasks? Kjellberg & Skoldstrom’s (1991) study on the annoyance of noise show that while performing different non-auditory tasks, ratings of annoyance were greatly influenced by one’s sensitivity to noise. The researchers also argue that a person’s ability to discriminate auditory cues can affect their reported level of annoyance. Essentially, if someone is performing a task that requires their full concentration, and they are distracted by noise, then they will react with more annoyance.Kjellberg & Skoldstrom (1991) point out that people are usually more sensitive to noise when they are performing an intellectual task, as compared to a manual one. In their study, participants consisted of 11 women and 7 men, with a mean age of 36.4 years old. The participants were asked to approximate how much effort they used on each task and how annoyed they felt during each task. The three tasks they were asked to accomplish were a proofreading task, a manual task, and a complex reaction time task. During each task, participants were exposed to broadband noises, in which a computer controlled the duration and amplitude of the noise. Each task was performed twice, first with a low decibel (dB) level of 46, and the second with a high dB-level of 69.Kjellberg & Skoldstrom’s (1991) first task was to have participants proofread some text taken from a demographic textbook. Participants were asked to correct two different types of errors in the text that were “typographical errors which could be identified by looking only at the word…and context errors which required an understanding of the sentence” (p. 40). The next task had participants perform a finger-dexterity test, which consisted of “transfer[ing] as many small metal pins as possible from plate to holes on a metal bar with a pincer” (p. 40). The last performance was a complex reaction time task called, The Color-word Test where the participants “press[ed] the space bar when the color and word meaning coincide[d]” (p. 40). Results of Kjellberg & Skoldstrom’s (1991) study showed that noise did not effect how participants performed on the finger dexterity or Color-word Test. The participants reported more sensitivity to noise during the proofreading task as compared to the other two tasks. In addition, participants were more annoyed with the higher dB-levels than the lower dB-levels. However, Kjellberg & Skoldstrom reveal that participants reported being more annoyed during the complex reaction time test, while being less annoyed during the proofreading task. This is due to the fact that participants could perform the proofreading task at their own pace, whereas, a machine controlled the pace of the Color-word test. Further research suggests making both tasks machine-paced, because performing a task at someone’s own pace can result in a person being less sensitive to distractions.The previous study suggests that the level of noise will not only affect an intellectual task, but also a manual one, even though people usually assume the opposite view of an intellectual task being affected the most. When considering noise level, it is also important to look at the time pattern of noise such as, continuous or intermittent noise. Common sense would tell us that intermittent noises are more distracting than continuous noises, because intermittent noises have “repeated onsets and offsets [that] keep attracting our involuntary attention, thus interrupting continuous attention required by the activity” we are currently doing (Dornic & Laaksonen, 1989, p. 16). However, Dornic & Laaksonen’s (1989) study on the effects of continuous and intermittent white noise reveal how continuous noises are more annoying than intermittent. In their study, 18 psychology students (12 women, 6 men), from the University of Stockholm were divided into six subgroups of three. Each subgroup was exposed to all three noises in a different order. Continuous, regular, and irregular intermittent white noises played through headphones while participants rated the noise on a scale from (1) rather annoying to (6) extremely annoying. Participants were able to turn the volume up and down and were asked to choose the level that was most annoying. The particular broadband (white noise) level that the participants chose as most annoying was then played during each of the three levels (continuous, regular intermittent,

and irregular intermittent) for approximately one minute. During this time the participants were asked to count starting with number 1 and so on, in their head, so everyone would have the same mental activity. After the experiment, participants were asked what their experience was like overall, and their opinions of noise. Dornic & Laaksonen then asked participants to complete the Swedish version of the Weinstein noise sensitivity scale. Their first finding of the study showed a big difference between the dB-level of the continuous and intermittent broadband noises. On average the participants chose a lower dB-level for the continuous broadband noise as compared to the two intermittent broadband noises. Dornic & Laaksonen (1989) explain that while participants chose a lower dB-level for the continuous white noise, ten of the participants reported that they were more annoyed by the intermittent broadband noises. Dornic & Laaksonen continue to explain the results by telling us how “in the intermittent conditions, the noise impinges on the nervous system only half the time, as compared to the continuous condition; half the time the system can be said to be at rest” (p. 16).Dornic & Laaksonen’s (1989) second finding show no differences in dB-levels for the regular and irregular intermittent conditions. However, eight participants interviewed afterwards reported being more annoyed with the irregular intermittent noise. Dornic and Laaksonen’s study shows that because so many different levels of noise were chosen by the participants, this reveals that people have many different opinions on what noises they perceive as annoying, and what may be annoying to one person, may not be annoying to another. Both intermittent and continuous noises can have an affect on people’s attention. Although both formats of noise are perceived as annoying, what is still a mystery is whether the actual level of noise in learning environments affects people in the same way as noise format. Addison, Dancer, Montague, & Davis (1999) explain that “ambient noise levels within a classroom can interfere with both teaching and learning” (p. 649). Typical ambient (surrounding area) noise levels include “heaters, air conditioning, radio, television, and students moving and talking” (p. 649). The researchers studied these noises within 30 classrooms from different buildings at the University of Arkansas. This study was conducted to check if campus classrooms exceeded the American Speech-Hearing Association (ASHA) guidelines of 35 dBA ambient noise levels while unoccupied. Results of the study show that “28 out of 30 classrooms had ambient noise levels exceeding the recommended ASHA levels of 35 dBA” (p. 649). Addison et al. (1999) tell us that many studies have shown how many public classrooms are above the recommended ASHA noise levels. In the Addison et al. study, while the doors were shut and the classrooms empty, the level of noise was measured within the rooms. The only acoustical factor that showed a “statistically significant correlation with ambient noise” levels, was the fan shutting off at “39.7 dBA and coming on at 47 dBA” (p. 649). Addison et al. suggest, “for best results, teaching and learning in higher education should be conducted in non-distracting, quiet environments” (p. 650). There are many aspects of noise to take into consideration, and depending on what activity someone decides to do, along with which environment to do it in will determine an individual’s reaction to noise. People sensitive to noise may not be able to adapt in their new environment, while people insensitive to noise who are also in a bad mood, might perceive noise more negatively. There is a wide range of how a person can react to noise, but usually people sensitive to noise will have a particular response nailed down exactly as to how they feel about a particular noise. People insensitive to noise can adapt, and may not be as distracted, as much as those sensitive to noise. Unfortunately, people sensitive to noise have a more difficult time dealing with noise as compared to people insensitive to noise, who do not judge noise regularly.The purpose of this study was to see if continuous noise or irregular intermittent noise would make it difficult for people to concentrate while reading. I also examined if those who are sensitive to noise will have a more difficult time with concentration. My hypothesis is that participants who are sensitive to noise will have a harder time concentrating while reading when listening to irregular intermittent noise, as compared to continuous noise. This will result in participants, among the irregular intermittent noise condition, receiving lower quiz scores, along with a reporting of greater difficulty with concentration while reading.

Participants 22 students among a General Psychology 101 class self selected to participate in the study. Once selected, the students were randomly assigned to one of the three conditions, with varying levels of noise.Materials The study was conducted in room 211 of Murphy Hall. Two personal training educational CDs were used with two males talking to each other on one CD, and a female and male talking to each other on the next CD. In each of the experimental conditions both CDs were played at the same time in separate CD players while the participants read, “In the Veins,” by C. Dennis Moore, followed by a short quiz. A post questionnaire was administered that asked participants about their noise preference while reading. The questionnaire also contained the Swedish version of the Weinstein Noise Sensitivity Scale, which has a 7-point scale ranging from (1) not at all to (7) very much. The 16-item scale measured their sensitivity to noise and had a Cronbach alpha internal consistency of .89. Thus, there is evidence that this instrument is internally and temporarily consistent. Procedure After introducing myself and thanking the participants for being part of my study, they were told that the purpose of the study was to determine their preferred reading environment. Participants were randomly assigned into one of three groups. Group 1: Control group with no intentional noise; Group 2: Experimental group with continuous noise and Group 3: Experimental group with irregular intermittent noise. First, the participants read and signed the informed consent form. Next, a short fictional story called, “In the Veins” by C. Dennis Moore was provided for them to read by themselves in each group along with a short quiz about the story to be completed before they left. During this time, the group receiving the independentvariable of continuous noise listened to the two CDs simultaneously on a low to medium volume. The other experimental group receiving the independent variable of irregular intermittent noise listened to the same CDs; however the pause button was pushed at irregular intermittent times (approximately 30 pauses in a span of 30-40 minutes). The control group while reading and answering the quiz did not receive any intentional noise. After a short quiz about the story, to make sure they read, the participants completed the three post-questionnaires. The first questionnaire they filled out before they left was the Weinstein Noise Sensitivity Scale. The next questionnaire was to determine their preferred reading environment. The last questionnaire given was on how easy or difficult it was to read the story and to the take the quiz when considering the noise or lack of noise in the room. After the questionnaires were filled out, participants were told that a debriefing form would be sent to them after the entire study was completed, which would inform them about the true purpose of the study. A list of their names was returned to their instructor so that five extra credit points could be awarded.

The means and standard deviations were run for the Weinstein Noise Sensitivity Scale, quiz scores, and for how easy or difficult it was to concentrate while reading and taking the quiz. See Table 1 for means and standard deviations. A correlation table was generated to examine the relationships between the independent variable of noise level (none, intermittent, and continuous) and the dependent variable of scores for the Weinstein Noise Sensitivity Scale, quiz, and on how easy or difficult it was to read and take the quiz. The correlation table shows that the more sensitive to noise a person is, the less they will be able to concentrate, r (2, 18) = -.46, p < .05. Analysis of variance was run to examine differences in total scores for the Weinstein Noise Sensitivity scale for all the various noise level conditions. The results showed approaching significance between the groups, F (2, 18) = 3.29, p = .06. The average sensitivity score for the intermittent condition was slightly higher than for the continuous condition. See Table 1. This could be due to the fact that after enduring the noise in the intermittent noise condition, participants may have experienced irritation with the noise, and could have reported being sensitive to noise, regardless if they were sensitive to noise in general.Analysis of variance was conducted to show if there were differences in total quiz scores between the various noise level conditions. The results showed approaching significance between the groups, F (2, 18) = 3.25, p = .06. The average quiz score for the intermittent condition was slightly lower than for the continuous condition. See Table 1. This may imply that the effect of the intermittent noise condition continued during the quiz and participants may not have been able to adapt. Whereas, the effect of the continuous noise condition during the quiz may have decreased and participants adapted over time.Analysis of variance was run to examine differences in total concentration scores between all various noise level conditions. A significant difference was found, F (2, 18) = 3.77, p < .05, between the intermittent and no noise conditions. The average concentration scores for the intermittent condition were significantly lower than for the no noise condition. This could be due to the fact that most students prefer reading in a no noise environment, compared to an intermittent noise environment. The average concentration scores between the intermittent and continuous condition showed no significant difference. See Table 1. This reveals that participants who prefer reading in a no noise environment were affected more, in both, the intermittent and continuous noise conditions.

The results support part of the original hypothesis that participants who are sensitive to noise, and who are also among the intermittent noise condition, would have a harder time concentrating while reading as compared to the continuous noise condition. The results show that concentration was affected in the intermittent condition as compared to the no noise condition. This could be due to the fact that most college students either prefer their reading environment to be completely quiet or prefer continuous noise. A correlation table showed a negative correlation between the sensitivity and concentration scores. This indicates that the more sensitive people are to noise, the less they will be able to concentrate while reading. The latter statement is in agreement with prior research, that people, who are sensitive to noise, have a harder time adapting into new environments.The results also show that there was a slightly higher average of sensitivity to noise for participants in the intermittent noise condition as compared to the other two conditions. To allow for the samples to be more random and distributed evenly among the conditions, future research should use the Weinstein Noise Sensitivity Scale as a covariate to the noise levels, because people come into the study with a predisposition for noise sensitivity. Using the Weinstein Noise Sensitivity scale after the participants read and took the quiz in this study, may have affected their scores. The intermittent noise condition could have been too irritating for participants and whether they were sensitive to noise or not, may have made them report higher sensitivity. The results show an approaching significant difference for total quiz scores between the groups. The average quiz scores for the intermittent noise condition were the lowest, with the no noise condition next, and finally the continuous noise condition with the highest scores. Ultimately, the quiz was formatted to be simple, and just a measure to make sure the participants read. Hypothesizing that the quiz scores would be lower for the intermittent noise condition came from prior research revealing that intermittent noise is more distracting and annoying than continuous noise. The continuous noise condition receiving perfect quiz scores relates to what prior research has said about the effects of continuous noise during a non-auditory task, is that people make more of an effort to filter out the noise, with the exception to broad band static noise.Limitations for this study included but were not limited to, the number of participants being very small (n = 22), due to a limited amount of time (two weeks) to obtain a sufficient number of participants. This also resulted in limited time to collect more data. Suggestions for future designs of this study, besides having an adequate number of participants and time, could include screening for those who are sensitive and insensitive to noise ahead of time so the two samples could be compared to each other. Two separate parallel studies could be run using those scoring high in noise sensitivity in Study 1, and those scoring low in noise sensitivity in Study 2. By using the same method in this study, results could be compared between Study 1 and Study 2 for differences in noise sensitivity and concentration. If results show a significant difference between the two studies, then those sensitive to noise could be informed that they should take extra consideration in where they decide to read.Another final suggestion for future designs of this study could be to change the noise used in the conditions. Future studies could use noises such as pop machines, buzzing lights, or noise from air ducts, because most of these noises can be found in areas where students read. Comparing results from a study using the noises mentioned above to this study would be a good way to show which noises result in a lack of concentration for the reading student. Comparing a sample of college students to a sample of non-college students could also be a good idea for this study. Non-college students who score high in noise sensitivity may not need to read as much as college students, but leisure reading, and other activities may be affected, such as those stated in the introduction.Prior research has made it clear that people with noise sensitivity have many different perceptions of noise, as compared to those insensitive to noise. Findings of such studies as mentioned above could help inform people of the effects of having noise sensitivity. People sensitive to noise could make better decisions in reading environments and where they live. In addition, people insensitive to noise may have a better understanding of why their neighbor is complaining so much about their loud stereo, etc.

Addison, J., Dancer, J., Montague, J., & Davis, P. (1999). Ambient noise levels in university classrooms: Detrimental to teaching and learning? Perceptual and Motor Skills, 89, 649-650.Dornic, S., & Laaksonen, T. (1989). Continuous noise, intermittent noise, and annoyance.Perceptual and Motor Skills, 68, 11-18.Kjellberg, A., & Skoldstrom, B. (1991). Noise annoyance during performance of different nonauditory tasks. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 73, 39-49.Vastfjall, D. (2002). Influences of current mood and noise sensitivity on judgments of noise annoyance. The Journal of Psychology, 136(4), 357-370.Weinstein, N. (1978). Individual differences in reaction to noise: A longitudinal study in a college dormitory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63(4), 458-466.


Submitted 5/8/2006 10:51:44 AM
Last Edited 5/8/2006 4:00:50 PM
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