Understandable background speech can affect our ability to read and process information, research from Bournemouth University has found.
Researchers used eye-tracking technology to test how different types of background sounds may cause distraction and lead to inefficient reading.
The paper, published by the American Psychological Association, found that readers are distracted by background speech when they can understand its meaning.
“This is a common problem in everyday life, for example for people who work in open-plan offices where there is background chatter, or in school classrooms,” said Post-Doctoral Researcher Martin Vasilev, who led the research.
“This type of distraction appears to be quite automatic, in the sense that people inadvertently try to listen to the irrelevant speech and process its meaning, even though it has nothing to do with what they are reading.
“People also seem to ‘lose track’ of what they were reading and have to go back and re-read previous parts of the text to compensate for the distraction.”
Participants read either single sentences or short paragraphs with four background sound conditions – silence, white noise, Mandarin speech which was unintelligible to participants, or English speech.
Eye-tracking technology was used to record the eyes with a camera while participants read in real time.
It found that irrelevant speech is distracting when people can process the meaning, and led to more re-reading of words and loss of comprehension.
The findings suggest that the distraction is mostly semantic in nature, rather than related to the background noise itself.
“The results show that hearing meaningful speech in the background always comes at the cost of less efficient reading,” said Martin.
“So, even if background conversations are not distracting enough to cause comprehension problems, readers still need to spend more time reading the text due to the need to revisit previous words and sentences to compensate for the loss of meaning.
He added: “These results have implications for many real-world settings where background speech is common.
"For example, many open-plan offices are characterised by poor acoustic privacy due to the presence of telephone conversations or colleagues talking in the background.
“Similarly, background speech can also be present in educational settings, such as classrooms where there is background chatter or noise from nearby rooms.
"In such settings, any tasks that rely on reading are likely to be affected due to the less efficient processing of text meaning.”
As the distraction by background speech is automatic, with the readers inadvertently processing the meaning of the speech even though it is not relevant to what they are reading, there is little readers can do to combat it.
“It is currently not known if there are any steps that individual readers can take to minimise the amount of the distraction,” Martin said.
“At present, the best strategy seems to be to try to limit the presence of background speech in areas where people are reading.”