From control tower to aerobatics: when selective attention helps us pilot our finances
This is the month of September, which for many of us is a month of transition from summer break to back to school. The many summer festivities leave room for hours of class or meetings... In this time of shift, however, the “cocktail party” effect remains… which, contrary to what one might think, is not the persistence of a festive spirit but the ability to hear a specific conversation in the midst of others. An ability demonstrated on a daily basis by the air traffic controllers. This effect can help us understand selective attention, which is critical to managing our personal finances.
In the hubbub of the control tower: understanding the “cocktail party” effect
A small look back, in July and August, at the beginning of the summer festivities. These months are the most intense in terms of commercial flights, which complicates the task of air traffic controllers. It is precisely to help them that, as early as 1953, researcher E. Colin Cherry became interested(1) in the way in which they were able to handle the multiple messages of the many pilots received simultaneously by different speakers of the control tower. He conducted experiments on the recognition of speech by making two different messages heard simultaneously by the same person. From the work of E. Colin Cherry, the term “cocktail party effect” was coined: the ability to hear a specific conversation in the midst of others that can be completely ignored.
Let us move from study to practice. When you were on school benches, you certainly managed to pull yourself together after hearing a teacher call you by your name, despite the hubbub of the class or your exciting chat with your neighbor! Or, more recently, on a summer night, you probably managed to hear your first name spoken in the distance while you were in the middle of a big discussion and noisy conversations.
Do you recognize any of these situations? If yes, you are perfectly in control of the «cocktail party» effect! But, at the risk of disappointing you, this is not a particular gift. Studies(2) on the notions of auditory attention have succeeded each other to show that if our own name is pronounced, it can immediately catch our attention (in 33% to 35% of cases according to these researches), even though it was in a channel out of our attention (in other words, it was delivered at a time when we were focused on another discussion).
Mastering selective attention: a high-flying exercise!
The “cocktail party” effect thus translates into the concentration of attention on certain words, often in reaction to certain keywords that appeal to you (your first name pronounced by a third party, a center of interest of yours, or an anecdote told at the table next yours at the restaurant…). It is an emblematic example of what is called selective attention, so precious for filtering information and only retaining or treating what we think is relevant.
And when it comes to the area of personal financial management, given the vast range of products and solutions available to us, selective attention is key. Its absence would make it impossible to concentrate the information needed to make informed decisions.
However, attention management is not easy. It can thus be complicated not to be distracted by salient but irrelevant information: recurring advertising for a type of investment, an asset class that makes the front page of magazines, an investment you’ve heard about very recently from a loved one, financial products you’re familiar with… On the other hand, it is appropriate not to fall into a poorly adjusted selectivity which would lead to focusing only on investments or arguments in the direction of one’s own convictions. A real balancing exercise or rather... high aerobatic!
After this soft landing, you can take control of your personal finances with the teachings of the control tower … or your last summer parties!
(1) E.C Cherry (1953); Some experiments on the recognition of speech, with one and with two ears
(2) N Wood and N Cowan (1995); The cocktail party phenomenon revisited: how frequent are attention shifts to one’s name in irrelevant auditory channel // N Moray (1959); Attention in dichotic listening: affective cues and the influence of instructions
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