Swinging at a cocktail party: voice familiarity aids speech perception in the presence of a competing voice

Psychol Sci. 2013 Oct;24(10):1995-2004. doi: 10.1177/0956797613482467. Epub 2013 Aug 28.


People often have to listen to someone speak in the presence of competing voices. Much is known about the acoustic cues used to overcome this challenge, but almost nothing is known about the utility of cues derived from experience with particular voices--cues that may be particularly important for older people and others with impaired hearing. Here, we use a version of the coordinate-response-measure procedure to show that people can exploit knowledge of a highly familiar voice (their spouse's) not only to track it better in the presence of an interfering stranger's voice, but also, crucially, to ignore it so as to comprehend a stranger's voice more effectively. Although performance declines with increasing age when the target voice is novel, there is no decline when the target voice belongs to the listener's spouse. This finding indicates that older listeners can exploit their familiarity with a speaker's voice to mitigate the effects of sensory and cognitive decline.

Keywords: aging; attention; auditory perception; auditory perceptual organization; cognitive processes; hearing; knowledge-based perception; language comprehension; speech; speech perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception / physiology
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Hearing Loss / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pattern Recognition, Physiological / physiology*
  • Perceptual Masking
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Spouses
  • Voice*