The cocktail party effect and the false narrative of office acoustics

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Three cocktails on the bar

Ask most people what they find most annoying about modern office life and they’re likely to tell you that it is the sounds of other people. The knee jerk response to this is often to blame the hegemony of open plan design and then find ways to reduce the amount of noise generated within the office. Like many others, this is an enduring narrative and one that many well-informed people continue to challenge. As always, the issues around office acoustics are far more complex and interesting than that and we’ve known it for a long time. Donald Broadbent was a researcher who died twenty years ago. Yet his research into cognitive psychology has never been more pertinent than it is right now as we continue to struggle with the the effects of unwelcome noise in open plan offices. Offices may have changed in the last twenty years, but human beings haven’t. This revealing programme, broadcast by the BBC, explores some of his ideas. There are no visuals so you have to use your ears.