Pressure at work: The unavoidable impact of background sounds on human cognitive tasks

In our working routine, we are increasingly exposed to interfering noise created by colleagues and all kind of noisy devices. The trend to open working and learning environments, meant to ease interaction with and stimulate communication between employees, comes with clear acoustic consequences: The lack of sound blocking walls makes it more difficult for the individual to shield her/his ears from sound sources in the environment. And what is considered a stimulating auditory environment for mechanical routine work becomes a stressor and performance cost factor for most tasks requiring concentration, focus and attention. 

In this research meet, the interaction between sound and cognitive processes was described and discussed based on current understanding within cognitive and environmental psychology. Two pitches introduced ongoing field research about the interaction between background sound and human tasks in open learning environments and in hospitals.  

This event was chaired by Prof. Dr. Armin Kohlrausch, Human Technology Interaction, TU Eindhoven.


  • Irrelevant speech and cognition
    Prof. Dylan M. Jones (Cardiff University)
    The intrinsically adaptive nature of distraction is discussed and the ways in which the study of irrelevant sound contributes to our understanding of the cognitive systems that underpin it are outlined.
  • A field study of sound and task interaction in a nursing ward
    Ir. Jikke Reinten (TU Eindhoven and Hogeschool Utrecht
    To measure the effect of the sound environment on job performance in a realistic setting, a thorough understanding of the specific workplace is required. A novel approach, combining job observation, audio recordings, the Think Aloud method and questionnaires, was used to gain insight in the sound environment, the task and their interaction in a nursing ward.  This presentation focusses on describing this approach and provides an overview of results along with the directions for further analysis. Valuable data was gathered regarding the cognitive task of a nurse (prospective memory), the sound environment at a ward, and their interaction (relevant/irrelevant distractions). This strengthens our idea that a field study is an essential starting point to gain insight in the effect of environmental factors such as sound on human performance.
  • Auditory distraction in open-plan study environments
    Ir. Ella Braat-Eggen (TU Eindhoven and Avans Hogeschool)
    Students in higher education spend a large part of their time in open-plan study environments (OPSEs). From a recent survey amongst users of OPSEs it appears that 40 percent of the students are bothered by background noise. How can we optimize the acoustic design of an OPSE?

    In this research characteristic student activities are tested in an experimental setting to measure the influence of different acoustic parameters of an OPSE on task performance and acoustic comfort. This presentation focusses on two different student tasks: writing and cooperation. First results show that different activities need different acoustic environments. It also shows that the acoustic environment rated as the most disturbing is not always the environment with the lowest task performance.

  • Exposition time does (not) matter: Annoyance ratings but not performance effects vary depending on the duration of noise exposure
    Prof. Sabine Schlittmeier (RWTH Aachen)
    Many studies verify office noise to impair cognitive performance and induce annoyance. Continuous noise is played in open-plan offices as a partial masker to reduce such disturbance effects. Yet, whether other sounds, like music or nature sounds, can be used instead is questionable. This holds in particular true if both performance effects and annoyance ratings are taken into account, since these do not always go hand in hand. This aspect is demonstrated by experimental studies which show that annoyance ratings for office noise and partial maskers vary with prolonged exposition times (from several minutes to several hours) whereas effects on cognitive  do not.