Speech spoken by familiar people is more resistant to interference by linguistically similar speech

J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2020 Aug;46(8):1465-1476. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000823. Epub 2020 Feb 27.


Understanding speech in adverse conditions is affected by experience-a familiar voice is substantially more intelligible than an unfamiliar voice when competing speech is present, even if the content of the speech (the words) are controlled. This familiar-voice benefit is observed consistently, but its underpinnings are unclear: Do familiar voices simply attract more attention, are they inherently more intelligible because they have predictable acoustic characteristics, or are they more intelligible in a mixture because they are more resistant to interference from other sounds? We recruited pairs of native English-speaking participants who were friends or romantic couples. Participants reported words from closed-set English sentences (i.e., Oldenburg Matrix Test; Zokoll et al., 2013) spoken by a familiar talker (the participant's partner) or an unfamiliar talker. We compared 3 masker conditions that are acoustically similar but differ in their demands: (1) English Oldenburg sentences; (2) Oldenburg sentences in a language incomprehensible to the listener (Russian or Spanish); and (3) unintelligible signal-correlated noise. We adaptively varied the target-to-masker ratio to obtain 50% speech reception thresholds. We observed a large (∼5 dB) familiar-voice benefit when the target and masker were both English sentences. This benefit was attenuated (to ∼2 dB) when the masker was in an incomprehensible language and disappeared when it was signal-correlated noise. These results suggest that familiar voices did not benefit intelligibility because they were more predictable or because they attracted greater attention, rather familiarity with a target voice reduced interference from maskers that are linguistically similar to the target. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Female
  • Friends
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Perceptual Masking / physiology
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Sexual Partners
  • Social Perception*
  • Speech Intelligibility / physiology
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult