Selective Hearing: All You Need to Know

Selective Hearing: All You Need to Know

Have you ever asked your partner to take out the trash while they’re watching TV? Chances are, you'll need to ask them more than once before they actually do it. Or, when your child is playing video games, do they tune out your questions, yet the word “chocolate” immediately grabs their attention?

Selective hearing is the ability to focus on a single sound or voice in a noisy environment. It is also known as “selective auditory attention” or the “cocktail party effect.” Selective hearing is often used as a negative expression meaning someone only hears what they want to hear. Yet, the actual meaning can be a skill or hindrance, depending on the context.

How Does Selective Hearing Work?

Research has revealed how we are able to ignore certain sounds while focusing on the ones that are important to us. 

In a scientific study carried out in 2012, researchers examined the auditory cortexthe part of the brain which processes sound. They aimed to find out how the brain responds to listening.

Participants in the research study listened to two voices saying different phrases at the same time. The scientists asked the participants to only focus on one of the voices. They then had to repeat what that person had said.

The brain activity data of the participants showed that they only paid attention to the speaker who they were asked to focus on. They were able to filter out the other speaker. Even though the person heard the other speaker, they weren’t actively listening

This result shows that our brains can prioritize sounds, even when there are other sounds present. In other words, when using selective hearing, we hear the background noise, but the brain only chooses to process part of this information.

How to Be a Better Listener

If your loved ones remark that you don’t listen to them, it could be a sign that you need to pay less attention to the sounds around you and more attention to them.

Selective hearing can become a bad habit that can harm relationships. You may feel like others are nagging you when actually they are checking you have acknowledged and remembered the information.

Of course, it’s normal to sometimes tune out from everyday instructions. But problems can occur when you frequently fail to show interest in what your loved ones are saying.

To improve your listening skills, you can try these simple techniques:

  • Maintain Focus
    When you are having a conversation, make sure you face the person you are speaking to and try to give good eye contact. This will help you to stay focused. It will also signal to your conversation partner that you are present and listening.
  • Pay Attention to Nonverbal Cues
    You can gain a lot of information from people without them even saying a word. Observe the body language of your conversation partner. What are their facial expressions telling you? Are they using gestures? Taking note of nonverbal cues will help you to gauge their feelings.
  • Ask Clarifying Questions
    If something is unclear, wait for a pause and ask your conversation partner to explain in more detail. This will help to keep you engaged in the conversation and also shows your interest in the topic.
  • Don’t Interrupt
    You may find yourself so interested in the conversation that you feel inclined to jump in with your own solutions or comments. But this means you interrupt the speaker.

    Interrupting someone in conversation can send them the message that you feel your opinion is more important than theirs. It can suggest that you don’t care what they think. To practice being a thoughtful communicator, take turns speaking. Before making your comment, wait for a pause in the conversation.
  • Make Comments and Summarize
    Show your conversation partner that you are following the conversation by making relevant comments based on what they have said.

    You can also show your understanding by a simple nod of the head, a well-timed “uh-huh,” or even a smile. At each pause, summarize what they have said to show you understand their train of thought.

How to Manage Selective Hearing


Does someone you know tend to zone out of conversations when they are already engaged in an activity? If so, there are things you can do to help enable more effective communication. Here are a few suggestions:

  • First, Get Their Attention
    Before speaking, first make sure you have the listener’s attention. Say their name or touch them on their shoulder to break their concentration. You may need to lower the volume of the TV, turn down loud music, or ask them to remove headphones. 
  • Speak Clearly
    Speak clearly and at a reasonable volume to make sure you can be heard easily. Mumbling can lead to the listener tuning out.
  • Give Short Pieces of Information and Allow For Clarification
    Some people find it difficult to pay attention to long sentences or conversations. Ensure you pause and check whether they have understood. Ask if they need clarification. Give them time to process what you have said and rephrase questions if needed.

    For simple instructions, try to use simple phrases. For example, instead of saying “Can you stop playing your video game and come downstairs because dinner is ready,” try “Dinner’s ready!”

How to Improve Selective Hearing

For some people, selective hearing might be a challenge. This is often the case for people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

There are things you can do to improve your selective hearing skills. The following strategies could help you:

  • Choose Your Listening Space Carefully
    When lots of sounds bombard your ears, it can be difficult to focus on just one. A carefully chosen listening space can help with this.

    In a restaurant, request a table on the patio or choose a quiet corner where you can hear your conversation partner more clearly.
  • Increase the Volume of Important Sounds
    If you are speaking to someone, for example, at a party where there is a lot of ambient noise, ask them to talk louder. Or move closer to them so you can hear them better.
  • Listen to One Thing at a Time
    Try not to divide your focus. For example, when someone addresses you while you are browsing on your cell phone, make sure you pause so you can give them your full attention.

Selective Hearing or Hearing Loss?

Selective hearing comes naturally to most people. But, if you or a loved one is finding it more and more difficult to hear amongst background noise, it could be a sign of hearing loss.

Since hearing lossparticularly due to aging—generally happens gradually, the person with hearing loss may not be the first to notice it. Often, the signs of hearing loss are easier to spot by close family members or friends.

Here are some key signs of hearing loss to look out for:

  • Watching TV with the volume louder than others need.
  • Often asking people to repeat themselves.
  • Difficulty hearing what people are saying, especially in noisy environments.
  • Feeling tired from concentrating while trying to listen.
  • Struggling to hear conversations on the telephone.
  • Misunderstanding what people say and responding with an inappropriate answer.

When to See a Doctor


Problems with hearing can happen when you get older, and your hearing health is important at any age.

If you suspect you or a loved one has hearing loss, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Or, if your hearing problem persists, you can visit a local hearing clinic for professional treatment.

If hearing loss is affecting your quality of life, treatments such as hearing aids from MDHearing, Costco, or other top hearing aid brands can help improve your hearing and boost your self-confidence.

On a tight budget? Not to worry! Hearing aids offered by MDHearing are not only FDA-registered, they’re also extremely affordable and backed by a 45-day risk-free trial and a U.S.-based support team trained by licensed audiologists.

Final Thoughts

Selective hearing is your ability to focus on a particular sound or conversation amongst other sounds. This phenomenon enables a new parent to wake to the sound of their baby crying while they sleep through their partner’s snoring. Yet selective hearing can also become a bad habit. If you keep tuning out those closest to you, you can miss out on valuable connections.

If you or a loved one are having difficulties with selective hearing, it could be indicative of a hearing problem. Here at MDHearing, we offer high-quality hearing aids at affordable prices. Our FDA-registered hearing aids start at just $299/pair.

Want to see if MDHearing will work for you? Get started with our quick and free online hearing test.