Yesterday, on a train traveling between London and Derby, I very nearly snapped. The reason? I had to listen to someone’s ‘phone constantly alerting them using the five notes that form the “Samsung whistle”. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an even more irritating noise than the Nokia tune made infamous by Dom Joly on Trigger Happy TV at the turn of the century.
The composer, Joongsam Yun, is quoted in a Guardian article from 2013 saying that the ringtone was designed to represent what customers think of the Samsung brand – innovative, friendly and trustworthy. Really. Well, I bet he’s not been stuck on a train for the best part of an hour and a half being force-fed the wretched thing tens and tens of times. I certainly wasn’t ascribing those particular values to Samsung by the time the train reached Leicester and the miscreant got off. Every time I thought I was going to get a few minutes peace to concentrate on a particularly tricky presentation that I’m trying to put together, my attention was completely disrupted by this truly appalling sound. Until it is banished from their equipment forever, I’m going to make a specific point of not buying anything (else) from them. (I’m looking at these words as I type them on a new Samsung monitor, so that threat is a little hollow at the moment as they’ve already had my cash).
In the end I gave up working on my presentation and thought instead about why the whistle seems to grab all of my attention every time I have the misfortune to hear it. Other ringtones don’t have this effect on me, so why is this one so intrusive?
Auditory attention is unlike visual attention as we don’t really have much of a choice about the sounds that reach our ears. If we don’t want to see something we can avert our gaze. That’s not possible with sounds – we can’t help but hear every noise in our immediate environment. However, our brains have evolved a neat trick which means that we can attenuate the sounds we don’t want to listen to and concentrate on the things we do want to hear. There are some neat psychological experiments which show that if two different stories are played through headphones, one into the right ear and one into the left, people have little difficulty in understanding and repeating the story they’ve been asked to follow, even if the experimenter switches the stories around between the ears part way through the task.
However, the story of auditory attention isn’t that simple. Imagine you’re talking to a group of friends and someone on the other side of the room says your name so that you can hear it. You weren’t expecting your name to be said, but your attention is immediately snapped away from the conversation you were having. Rather pleasingly, cognitive psychologists call this “the cocktail party effect”. One of the explanations for this is that because our name is a particularly important to us, when someone says it, even if we aren’t expecting it, our automatic systems take over and we can’t help but shift our attention away from what we were originally concentrating on. And of course, it’s not just hearing our name that can have this effect, but anything that is particularly salient to us.
So perhaps the “Samsung whistle” is, for some reason, particularly salient to me. The problem is, I really don’t buy that explanation. I don’t have a Samsung ‘phone, even if I did I’d never use that ringtone, and I’ve spent the last couple of years studiously trying to ignore the noise. It doesn’t mean anything to me at all.
It would seem to me that the “cocktail party effect” explanation therefore doesn’t apply here. I’ve no idea what psychological mechanism is at work, even having done a brief trawl of the literature this lunchtime.
But if someone could put me out of my misery and explain it to me, I’d give you my undivided attention while you did. Truly I would. Unless, of course, someone in the room had a Samsung ‘phone switched on.