Study: Child's whining one of life's most distracting sounds

NEW YORK Tue Jun 21, 2011 5:41pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Any parent can confirm what researchers say they may now have scientifically proven: a child whining is one of the most distracting sounds on the planet.

Worse than the unpleasant screeches of a table saw catching repeatedly on a piece of wood. Even harder to ignore than cringe-inducing exaggerated baby-talk of caregivers known as "motherese."

The sound of a whining child tops them all as the most distracting, according to new research published in the latest edition of the online peer-reviewed Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology.

The research was designed to test whether humans, including non-parents, are hard-wired to be more attuned to the distinctive melodies and rhythms emitted by a needy toddler than they are to other distracting noises.

Volunteers were asked to try to complete a set of math problems while wearing headphones. Six different sound conditions were created through the headphones: toddler whines; baby cries; motherese; the more neutral speech of two grown-ups in conversation; the screeching table saw; and silence.

All of the speech used in the recordings was in languages unfamiliar to the volunteers, to ensure that the effect of the speeches' prosody, and not its meaning, was being tested.

The volunteers completed the fewest problems and made the most mistakes while trying to block out the sound of a whiny infant, regardless of whether they were male or female, or whether they had children of their own. The error rate was nearly twice that of the problems completed to the backdrop of the screeching saw.

Motherese and baby cries, which, like whining, are characterized by heightened pitch and exaggerated contours, were also fairly distracting.

The study concludes that when a child whines -- a phase the researchers say really hits its stride between the ages of about 2 and 4 years old -- it is exploiting an "auditory sensitivity" shared by all humans.

The paper's authors -- Rosemarie Sokol Chang, of SUNY New Paltz in New York, and Nicholas S. Thompson, of Clark University in Massachusetts -- say further research needs to be done to find out whether the particular melody, rhythm and speed of whining is inherently distracting to humans, or if it is a learned response.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)