Married people find it easier to hear—and hear over—their spouse’s voice

David Kirkwood
September 11, 2013


KINGSTON, ONTARIO–A research study published online August 28 in Psychological Science reports that middle-aged and older married couples find the familiar voice of their spouse easier to hear and understand in a background of speech than other, less familiar voices. The voice that a husband or wife has heard regularly for many years stands out relatively clearly against other voices and enables the person to focus better on his or her spouse’s speech.

Moreover, middle-aged couples (but not elderly couples) also find it easier to set aside their spouse’s voice in order to focus on another voice than they do to ignore a less familiar voice to hear the voice of someone else other than their spouse.

The research study, led by Ingrid S. Johnsrude, PhD, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, asked married couples, ages 44-79, to record themselves reading scripted instructions out loud. Then, they had the subjects put on headphones and listen to the recording of their spouse as it played simultaneously with a recording of an unfamiliar voice, matched with the spouse’s voice for age and gender.

Subjects of all ages tended to perceive their spouse’s voice more clearly than the unfamiliar voice.

When subjects were told to report what the unfamiliar voice said, age-related differences emerged. The middle-aged people were able to follow the unfamiliar voice relatively well, especially when it was masked by their spouse’s voice. However, the older a subject was, the less well he or she could understand the unfamiliar voice, even when it was masked by the spouse’s voice.

In an interview with, Johnsrude said, “These findings speak to a problem that is very common amongst older individuals–difficulty hearing speech when there is background sound. Our study identifies a cognitive factor, voice familiarity, that could help older listeners to hear better in these situations.”


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