The “Cocktail-Party Effect

‘I realize I just posted a newsletter on Monday, but the lead article in the “Personal Journal” section of the Wall Street Journal yesterday is so in tune with what I teach in my “Be Present When You Are Present” speech that I simply have to talk about it! “What Cocktail Parties Teach Us” includes data on attentiveness and the lack of it, along with the negative effects of multi-tasking. The article makes the point that only 2.5% of people can multitask efficiently, though many more think they can. Below is a section from the article.

These findings, published in the journal Nature last week, underscore why people aren”t very good at multitasking—our brains are wired for “selective attention” and can focus on only one thing at a time. That innate ability has helped humans survive in a world buzzing with visual and auditory stimulation. But we keep trying to push the limits with multitasking, sometimes with tragic consequences. Drivers talking on cellphones, for example, are four times as likely to get into traffic accidents as those who aren”t.

Many of those accidents are due to “inattentional blindness,” in which people can, in effect, turn a blind eye to things they aren”t focusing on. Images land on our retinas and are either boosted or played down in the visual cortex before being passed to the brain, just as the auditory cortex filters sounds, as shown in the Nature study last week. “It”s a push-pull relationship—the more we focus on one thing, the less we can focus on others,” says Diane M. Beck, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois.

So I hope you get to read that article. Perhaps “inattentional blindness” is a problem in your organization. If you get from it a sense that your employees—or yourself—need training in paying attention, give us a call (800.727.6520) to talk about how I can help your employees to be more effective by paying attention.To comment, click here.

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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