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Crank It Up! Harnessing Loud Sounds to Combat Loneliness

New research finds a simple intervention to combat loneliness.

Key points

  • New research shows that auditory loudness makes people feel closer to others, because it fosters a social atmosphere.
  • People likely associate loudness with interpersonal closeness because loudness reminds them of social and lively memories.
  • Similarly, people likely associate silence with loneliness and isolation because silence reminds them of loneliness-related memories.
  • Having some form of background noise, such as the radio, TV, an audiobook, or music, could be a useful weapon against feelings of loneliness.

Growing up in the modern world where urbanization is occurring at an emancipated rate, cities are getting bigger and more crowded, and so is traffic. As a consequence, the word “loudness” likely comes with negative connotations for the average city dweller, possibly reminding people of honking cars, early morning construction works, and inconsiderate neighbours. New research however, demonstrates that loudness is not all bad, and actually has an important beneficial property – protection against loneliness (Wang et al., 2021).

Mental Associations From Life Experiences

Anastasia Shuraeva, used with permission
Empty street
Source: Anastasia Shuraeva, used with permission

When people experience interpersonal closeness with others, this could be in the form of physical closeness, such as being in a crowded environment instead of an empty one, or in the form of social closeness, such as interacting with close friends instead of strangers. Regardless, feelings of interpersonal closeness are often accompanied by ambient loudness while feelings of interpersonal isolation are often accompanied by silence. As an example, imagine walking down the empty streets of a city in strict COVID lockdown, and compare this to the hustle and bustle of the same street during pre-COVID times. Common sense tells us that loudness increases with crowdedness.

Monstera, used with permission
Close friends watching a movie
Source: Monstera, used with permission

Now imagine watching a comedy movie on Netflix with your best friends, and compare this to if they were people whom you barely know. Again, it makes intuitive sense that people are more verbal and expressive around close friends and more reserved and shy around unfamiliar others (Cheek & Buss, 1981), so the first scenario would likely involve a louder atmosphere. Even our language expressions reflect how the dimension of loudness corresponds with social relationship dynamics, such as "the silent treatment" to indicate a downhill relationship trajectory. Over time, it is likely that feelings of interpersonal closeness and perceptions of loudness are mentally associated such that the mere exposure to loudness could confer a sense of interpersonal closeness, just like how the smell of certain cookies could bring back nostalgic memories (Herz, 2016).

Interesting New Findings

The main finding of this research was that loudness confers a sense of interpersonal closeness (Wang et al., 2021). There were also some secondary, and arguably more interesting findings from this research. First, people who have been made to feel unwanted and lonely tend to prefer louder volume when given an audiobook to listen to. Perhaps this reflects a compensatory mechanism whereby people hope to be immersed in loudness since it provides a false sense of companionship which is sought after when people are deprived of real companionship. Moreover, exposure to loudness has demonstrated surprisingly powerful protective effects in the face of social exclusion. Socially ignored participants who listened to an audiobook at high volume did not feel worse than those who were not ignored, while participants who listened to the same audiobook at low volume felt significantly worse than all other participants. Again, this is presumably because loud sounds foster the perception of a ‘social atmosphere’, which acts as a buffer against the social pain of being ignored. These results are consistent with the everyday observation that people, especially when alone, often tend to turn on some form of background noise, such as music or the TV while working or doing chores, even when they do not intend to dedicate attention to these sounds.

Interestingly, not only do loudness levels affect feelings of interpersonal closeness, feelings of interpersonal closeness also affect the way we perceive loudness in the surrounding environment. Specifically, one of the experiments showed that participants who were reflecting on a loneliness-related memory actually rated their surroundings as quieter compared to those who reflected on a social memory, despite being in the same environment. Collectively, the findings of this research show that we have a nuanced relationship with sound perception. It is not just a form of sensory input that helps us gauge distance from a source, but also seems to be imbued with a layer of social information. It is not just construed as ‘sound pollution’, but also something that, when not present, could overwhelm people with a sense of lifelessness and loneliness.

Burst, used with permission
Listening to music
Source: Burst, used with permission

Loudness Helps Ameliorate Loneliness

Loneliness is a pervasive phenomenon that costs the world billions of dollars every year. It could be thought of as chronic pain in the sense that it is an unpleasant feeling that could distract us from being productive in life. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic may have exacerbated the already widespread phenomenon of loneliness, with various work-from-home and quarantine practices amid slow vaccination rates of most places in the world. Turning on some form of sound and cranking the volume up could be a convenient, risk free, and cost free remedy that ameliorates feelings of loneliness, especially for loneliness-prone settings such as solitary jobs, hospitals, and quarantine hotels.