Brainmatters | Mixed signals - the youth of today


The youth of today - always multitasking; sitting in lectures with one eye on their laptops, one thumb on their telephones; reading with both ears plugged into music. Distractions don't bother them, on the contrary they seek them out. Just take a look at our youngest employees, the PhD candidates: each and every one of them wears headphones.

The passage above gives the gist of an argument that was put forward in a discussion about open-plan workplaces. The speaker's point was that putting these young thinkers in an open-plan work environment can't do them any harm, on the contrary they thrive on it. Why else would they add even more distractions of their own while working?

Background sound is not an issue when you are trying to concentrate. But noise is. The crux, of course, is this: what makes sound into 'noise'? The volume, of course, plays a role, but more important factors are the continuity and predictability of the sound, the control that you as a listener have over the sound, and the nature of the sound.

In recent months, three Bachelor's students have carried out a study among some hundred and fifty PhD candidates and postdocs on our campus. For each workplace, they identified how open it was in terms of sight lines and the nature and frequency of sound, and they asked users how much privacy they felt they had, the nuisance they experienced and about their work pressure. Feelings of privacy proved hard to predict and were poor indicators of nuisance and work pressure.

When it came to sound an entirely different picture emerged. Of the researchers in 'small' rooms with up to six persons, some 25 percent experienced noise nuisance. By contrast, 50 percent of people at workplaces they shared with seven or more others described the amount of noise nuisance they experienced as 'a lot/much' or 'very much'. While they are getting to grips with the most complex material and are supposed to complete a thesis within four years, all these sounds are adding 10 percent to the work pressure they experience. Telephones, passersby and, in particular, other people's conversations, were found to be highly disruptive. All sounds that come and go unexpectedly - and are thus unpredictable. We can't help but make sense of conversations, we do it unconsciously, so they easily interfere with language-based tasks - such as reading and writing.

Not adding sound, but avoiding noise

And so 90 percent of our talented young people use headphones: music may be louder but it is more predictable, more controllable and - depending on your particular choice - interferes less with language tasks. Let's be sure not to confuse the problem with the solution here: those earplugs are not there to add sound but to avoid noise. To what heights could they soar in silence…

A special thanks goes out to Tanne Ditzel, Jochem Gieles en Jonathan van der Bent!

Yvonne de Kort is Professor of Environmental Psychology at Human-Technology Interaction

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