For starters, of the fifteen simple questions we asked—such as “What color will the room be painted?”—only 18 percent got them all right. The vast majority of takers got somewhere between one-third and one-half of the questions right. And while we didn’t warn the test takers that this was a listening test, the tests were administered in a fairly unrealistic environment that should have made getting the answers right a layup. These middling results were incredibly consistent across regions of the country and income groups. Lower-income earners scored a few percentage points lower, but so did upper-class folks earning more than $250,000 per year. The difference of around 5 percent should be considered slight, however. There was only one finding large enough to peg one group as better listeners than another.
Women beat the pants off of men—at least, to a statistically significant degree.
Nationwide, women answered 66 percent correct, while men scored only 49 percent. Again, this discrepancy cut across age, income bracket, and even education.
As two men, we’d like to remind you again at this point that the test was informative but unscientific. It’s important to note, however, that men aren’t kidding themselves about this listening gender gap. After we administered the questions, we asked test takers what they thought of their own listening abilities: Men consistently indicated they were average or below-average listeners. At least there’s some self-awareness there. But men, look at it this way: If you are missing details on half of everything that’s said to you, think how easy it will be for you to improve your lot in life, to break through plateaus, simply by focusing a little more on what speakers say.
We wanted to go even deeper into this question of listening comprehension and distraction, so we partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to develop a distraction and listening test that was designed to be painstakingly scientific. More narrow in scope, but more convincing in its results, the test conducted by professor Alessandro Acquisti and researcher Dr. Eyal Peer is remarkable, eye-opening, and hopeful. We asked a simple question: Does the mere presence of a cell phone or any other “interruptive” gadget on your body decrease your basic cognitive skills, such as comprehension?
To simulate the magnetic pull of an expected cell phone call, we had subjects sit in a lab and perform a standard cognitive skill test. Precisely 136 subjects were asked to read a short passage and answer questions about it. There were three groups of subjects. One merely completed the test. The other two were told they “might be contacted for further instructions” via instant message. During an initial test, the second and third groups were interrupted twice. Then, a second test was administered, but this time, only the second group was interrupted. The third group awaited an interruption that never came. Let’s call the three groups Control, Interrupted, and On High Alert.