The Cocktail Party Effect



The ‘cocktail party effect’ is a phenomenon we’ve all experienced. Imagine you are in a busy, noisy room full of people, with many conversations going on, such as at a bar or cocktail party. You are deep in conversation with someone and suddenly, through all the noise, you hear someone else nearby utter your name. In that moment your attention is pulled out of the conversation you are in, and directed instead to the person you just heard mention your name. Suddenly you want to know what they want or what they were saying. That’s the cocktail party effect.

It happens because while our cognitive attention is focused on the conversation we are in, our senses are still subconsciously drawing in information from all around us, including peripheral sounds. There are some sounds we are conditioned to react to, sounds that instantly demand priority for our conscious attention, and one of them is the sound of someone saying our name.

It demonstrates how important our names are to us. After all, we’ve been responding to people calling us by our names for longer than we can remember. It’s deeply embedded conditioning.

I learnt a brilliant new word recently. ‘Tartle’. It’s a word from Scotland which describes that slightly panicky feeling you get when you are about to introduce someone and you can’t remember their name! You’ll know this feeling because we’ve all been there, and I love that there is a word for it.

Having someone take the effort to remember your name makes you feel good, makes you instinctively like them more and strengthens the social bond between you both. Having someone forget your name subconsciously weakens that connection. This is why we feel an excruciating moment of panic when we are the person who forgets.

Have you ever been introduced to someone new and forgotten their name almost immediately? It’s particularly likely to happen when you are introduced to lots of new people in quick succession, such as when you start a new job, are at a friend’s wedding, or indeed in the course of delivering your service to customers.

I have a great way of getting out of this one…

I say, “I’m really sorry I’ve forgotten your name already, but I do really want to remember it, can you please tell me again?” No one has ever replied “Look, I’ve told you once and I’m not repeating myself!” Instead, they always appear genuinely pleased that learning their name is important to me. It actually strengthens our social connection.

The thing is, this is a single-use get-out-of-jail card. You can’t exactly ask again a few minutes later so make sure you pay extra attention the second time they tell you.