Lindsay J. McCunn Ph.D


Sound or Noise?

The importance of individual differences.

Posted Nov 20, 2014

Stop whatever you are doing and listen to where you are. Lower your phone, close your laptop… shut your eyes. What do you hear?

I bet you hear a variety of sounds. But I bet you hear a lot of noise, too. If you’re asking what the difference is between ‘sound’ and ‘noise,’ the answer has much to do with desire and meaning. Actually, whether something is perceived as ‘noisy’ depends, in part, with who you are and what you’ve done in your life.



Sounds are continuous and regular vibrations. We might want to hear a certain sound (e.g., the beep of the microwave when hungry). Or we might expect to hear a sound – or a collection of them -- in particular places. For instance, my expectation of a public, social setting (like a coffee shop) is that it will be filled with voices, reverberations, and intermittent mechanical sounds. Whether I choose to study, chat with a friend, or just stop by this type of setting alone, my understanding, based on past experience of social and environmental norms, allows me not to perceive predictable sounds as offensive -- as ‘noise.’


Most of us are often unbothered by the presence of certain sounds. Noise, on the other hand, is quite bothersome. It is unwanted sound. But environmental psychologists (and others) have found that noise, as annoying as it is, may not affect us as negatively as one might assume. A recent study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that even loud, continuous, and cacophonous noise can be experienced positively, depending on the social context (in this case, a religious festival - see Shankar et al., 2013). It does seem like commonsense that there would be an inverse relation between noise and learning (or concentration or mood or… you name it). No?

Well, it’s complicated.

Whether noise has a significant influence on psychological or behavioural factors depends upon a number of variables to do with each of us, and the specific environments we spend time in. Take the act of learning in particular. How loud or how meaningful a noise is can affect learning differently. Of course, loudness is important. But whether a noise is meaningful is also key. What I mean is, the sound of a baby crying or of two people arguing will make it harder for most people to concentrate than, say, ambient traffic noise. Even sounds like keystrokes, background conversational speech, and music can interfere with performance on cognitive tasks (Smith, 1985). This may have something to do with the timing of a noise. Intermittent and uncontrollable noises are often worse for efficient learning than continuous white noise (Broadbent, 1979). 

Who is learning (i.e., differences in gender, personality, motivation, and need for control) and what is being done (e.g., memorizing, problem-solving) also impacts whether noise hinders successful learning (Gifford, 2007). I’m not the first to point this out, of course. Nor am I the first to post about noise online – even for Psychology Today. A fellow Psychology Today blogger has written much about noise and its affects on our daily lives on his blog called “Shut up and Listen!” This post about how to quiet your life is quite poignant. Indeed, researchers in several fields have noticed, explored, and suggested ways to mitigate the high noise levels people live with nowadays.

I could easily list out relevant (and interesting!) research on correlations between noise and other behaviours and feelings beyond learning… productivity at work, mood, job satisfaction, and so on. But, to me, the coolest thing about these research questions is the need to consider individual differences in context. Studying whether noise alters performance, satisfaction, health, or concentration is something that is relevant in most every setting: learning environments, offices, industrial buildings, modes of transit, homes, neighbourhood centres, malls, hospitals… and on and on.

I can’t help but link back to the notion of setting congruence (I’ve mentioned this element of social design in previous posts here and here). Setting congruence is a match or psychological ‘fit’ between a person and his or her environment (per context and function). In terms of this discussion, whether people feel comfortable doing different things in particular places has to do with an optimum level of noise tolerance built upon an individual’s unique set of life experiences, socializations, and expectations. Thus, my relatively high tolerance for sounds of a social nature (e.g., people talking, laughing, debating) has allowed me to feel comfortable and productive studying, writing, and thinking in public places where people congregate (like coffee shops!). Some people I know do not have this level of tolerance for social sounds and they would perceive others talking around them while they worked as noise. They would fail to concentrate and fail to learn well. Check out work using Neil Weinstein’s noise sensitivity scale (Weinstein, 1978) for findings about how the scale can predict behaviour in response to sound.

One might consider how our personal tolerance levels for noise determines, in part, where we spend our time and who we meet. My comfort threshold for sound allows me to approach (and spend significant amounts of time in) public settings. This behaviour likely has allowed me to make friends and professional connections in my community more often than someone who has a lower comfort threshold for social sound (who, perhaps, chooses to work, study, or otherwise spend time in quieter environments like a library, park, or at home). In terms of Albert Mehrabian’s stimulus screening construct, I would be classified as a good ‘screener’ because I am frequently less aroused by potentially distracting environmental stimuli (Mehrabian, 1976).

Perhaps you are a good ‘screener’ too. Or maybe you’re not. Either way, take a moment to think about your personality and how it relates to the range of environments you find yourself in every day. Consider your optimal levels of stimulation for the sounds you encounter in your life. What is ‘noise’ to you? And is that noise merely ‘sound’ to someone you know? Are you apt to concentrate better in louder or quieter places? How has this preference affected your performance, your mood, or your social behaviour over the years? What if you decided to expand upon your tolerance level for certain sounds? Could you, even if you tried?

Get back to me.



Broadbent, D. E. (1979). Human performance and noise. In C. M. Harris (Ed.)., Handbook of noise control. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Gifford, R. (2007). Environmental psychology: Principles and practice. Victoria, BC: Optimal Books.

Mehrabian, A. (1976). Manual for the questionnaire measure of Stimulus Screening and Arousability. Unpublished manuscript, University of California at Los Angeles.

Shankar, S., Stevenson, C., Pandey, K., Tewari, S., Hopkins, N. P., & Reicher, S. D. (2013). A calming cacophony: Social identity can shape the experience of loud noise. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 87-95.

Smith, A. P. (1985). The effects of different types of noise on semantic processing and syntactic reasons. Acta Psychologica, 58, 263-273.

Weinstein, N. D. (1978). Individual differences in reactions to noise: A longitudinal study in a college dormitory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63, 458-466. 

About the Author

Lindsay J. McCunn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in environmental psychology at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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