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What is Selective Hearing?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Selective hearing is a way of describing the tendency of some people to ignore things that they don’t want to hear. It is not a physiological condition, as the individuals are physically hearing the words, but their minds choose not to acknowledge what is being said. In many cases, the conscious mind does not appear to receive the information, so it is different than an active ignoring of speech. Instead, it is a sort of selective inattention that may be done consciously or subconsciously.

Classically, selective hearing is an attribute people associated with men. The standard example would be a woman asking her male partner whether he wants to go to the opera that night, only to have him seemingly ignore her. When she mentions something of interest to him, such as football or beer, however, he immediately responds as though he had been listening all along. Although these sorts of examples may seem facetious, in fact, they are not uncommon in everyday interactions between people of all genders and relationships.

Attention is a complex system that is not particularly well understood, although it is studied at great length. One thing that does appear to be certain is that the degree of attention a person gives is able to shift radically based on circumstances. Certain things appear to command absolute attention, while others seem nearly impossible to focus on. Hearing selectively is simply a manifestation of the mutable nature of attention, and it is rarely indicative of any sort of overt malice or disdain for a subject or person speaking. It has more to do with the way one's mind prioritizes things.

It is not uncommon for parents to believe that their children suffer from some sort of hearing disorder if the level of selective hearing they express is particularly high. Although physiological causes may be responsible, it is more commonly related to an attention disorder. Children are particularly susceptible to not listening to everything that is said, as they are constantly being bombarded by new information to assimilate. In order to cope, they may shut out things their brains decide are unimportant.

This term may also be used to describe an unrelated manner of interaction, in which a person chooses to hear only what he or she wishes to out of a conversation. This is commonly seen in cases where a person asks a question with the goal of achieving a desired end, rather than actually understanding a situation. For example, if Jane asks John to bring some milk by her house, and John refuses, Jane may ask, “Why not?” In this case Jane is asking the question not with the intent of understanding why John doesn’t wish to bring her milk, but rather to pick apart his rationale to try to get him to buy the milk.

As a result, no matter what John responds, Jane will only hear the point she can respond to. If he says, “It will take too long,” she will respond, “It will only take five minutes.” If he responds, “I have too much to do today,” she may respond, “I would do it for you.” In every instance, she is not truly listening to understand what John is saying, but only to gather enough superficial information to refute his point.

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Discussion Comments

By anon952992 — On May 23, 2014

Complete crap, some people may have ADD or ADHD. If you can't hear or say "What?" all the time, get your hearing tested. Chances are you may have a loss that needs medical attention.

By emipuscas — On Nov 19, 2013

I personally think selective hearing can be a disease, but I think people choose to do it because they don't feel the need to hear everything. They are lazy.

By anon345960 — On Aug 24, 2013

@anon186621: Try a cochlear implant. When my hearing aids were not working, I got a cochlear implant and I love it.

By anon333803 — On May 07, 2013

Selective hearing is a case of immaturity and/or self centered ego. Over the years, I have noticed a few people who have a terrific skill at selective hearing. In many cases, the person is concentrating on what they have to say (or do) then on what they are hearing.

They pick out only key words of a statement by some other person and use that as a queue to begin talking or taking some kind of action.

In most all cases (three that I know of for decades) the selective hearing person is on medication and usually very long term medication.

By anon330125 — On Apr 14, 2013

I think I have a hearing problem, especially when I'm on the phone. It's like I can hear their voices, but I'm having a hard time understanding what they say. It's as if they are just murmuring. Is there any remedy for this aside from using a hearing aid?

By anon318119 — On Feb 05, 2013

Some people, including me, cannot hear anything when they are concentrating. I will have people walk into my office and start talking to me from two feet away and I will have no idea they are present until they touch me or get into my line of sight.

I noticed my son inherited the same quirk and I have had to explain to his teacher that she must touch him on the shoulder if he is reading a book or concentrating on something otherwise he will not hear her.

She was skeptical but now that she touches him before she talks to him when he is concentrating, there are no more complaints about him not listening.

By anon280260 — On Jul 16, 2012

I figured out how to consciously use selective hearing when I was in elementary school and I remember how awesome it was and how proud I was that it worked. Then I must have subconsciously forgotten how cool it was and it just became subconscious selective hearing again.

It wasn't until I was in my first long term relationship that I was reminded about my selective hearing, and you can probably guess how.

It is a blast to use selective hearing consciously again, especially on friends and family, even if they don't think it's so funny.

The way I do this is hard to explain, but it is as though all the background noises I can hear are quickly separated and sorted into boxes. Then I can just slide the "box full of noise" that I don't want out of the situation. I can only do this if there are at least two different types of background noise in the situation and I classify speech and/or group speech as background noise also).

For me, it is almost like a muscle that can be trained and become stronger. For example, I could use selective hearing on Jane and see that Jane thinks I am ignoring her, yet I simply continue to use selective hearing regardless of how mad she gets.

When a person is subconsciously using selective hearing on Jane and they notice that Jane thinks she is being ignored, the selective hearing effect vanishes.

Selective hearing is something everyone can learn.

By anon186621 — On Jun 15, 2011

I have fairly serious hearing loss and have for several years. I have been wearing hearing aids for years. For the past several years, I have had difficulty understanding what some people are saying, especially on the telephone. It isn't that I do not want to hear, it is that i cannot understand what they are saying. I can hear their voice, but their words are sort of mumbled.

I spoke with my audiologist about it and he has tried to adjust my hearing aids to improve the condition, but it hasn't really helped. I asked him if it was possible to correct it, and he said it is very difficult. I recently received a special telephone that greatly magnifies the sound, but I have problems with even that phone. It is very discouraging. Is there any remedy?

By anon181840 — On May 31, 2011

Does anyone know what I may have?

I never thought of myself having a hearing problem, as I have always been a very good listener, and even been told this by many people, so it's not like some delusional opinion that only I have about myself.

But lately, I have been having major issues hearing simple things my fiance has said to me, I think it's because of stress but she says I have selective hearing, and the last two paragraphs of this article do describe me 100 percent unfortunately, and even when reading it, I don't even see a problem to what "Jane" did, can someone, anyone, explain to me why it's bad? so maybe I can understand?

I mean supposedly this morning, a guy came by the house around 8:30 in the morning to check out the house, as were getting our carpets cleaned soon, and I slept past the visit, my fiance told me that she came into the bedroom and yelled my name for me to wake up and I didn't. Really? This has never happened to me before,

I've never had an issue with listening, let alone simply not hearing someone who's yelling to wake me up, but I also got very little sleep last night, plus as I said, heavy stress lately. I just don't know what's wrong with me. Is this selective hearing? Because I know I'm not deaf or anything. I'm only 21 and have good hearing. I just have a hearing disorder or something?

By oasis11 — On Aug 02, 2010

Anon298032- I also think it is great how the writer describes selective hearing. That is hearing that sometimes comes about when people want to avoid doing certain things.

So they may act like they do not hear that you wanted something done. For example, I may ask my daughter to clean up her room and 30 minutes later the room is still in the same condition.

When I asked her why she didn't clean up her room, she would respond that she didn't know that I wanted her to pick up the room.

In this situation, my daughter intentionally chose selective hearing and avoided doing something that she did not want to do. Many children do this with their chores and homework assignments.

The way I fix this problem is that I ask my daughter to repeat what I just said. I then explained what my expectation is what will happen is that task is not completed.

When I do this, I usually don't have a problem.

By anon39719 — On Aug 04, 2009

Thanks for helping me formulate what happens in those situations. I can never explain to the other person that are are actually not listening to what I am saying, very frustrating! But knowing the science of it helps me a lot. Writer, you are awesome!

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