Noise sensitivity Soames 1999

Noise sensitivity as a factor influencing human reaction to noise

RF Soames Job 
 Department of Psychology, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

Correspondence Address:
R F Soames Job
Department of Psychology, University of Sydney, Sydney


Reaction (annoyance, dissatisfaction) to noise is itself an important health effect, as well as possibly contributing to other putative health effects of noise. Thus, factors such as noise sensitivity, which influence reaction, are of considerable importance. However, noise sensitivity is rarely clearly defined. This paper offers a formal definition of noise sensitivity, and reviews evidence relating to it. Noise sensitivity has been measured in various ways, but may be measured most directly by assessing reaction to many noise situations (other than those involving the noise source(s) which are the focus of the particular study). When noise sensitivity is measured in this way, factor analysis consistently reveals that noise sensitivity is not a unitary concept. Rather, two distinct factors appear: one related to loud noises (road traffic, lawn mower), and the other related to quieter noise situations which are nonetheless distracting (rustling papers at the movies, people talking while watching television). More research is needed to address the relationships between these factors, reaction and other health effects.

How to cite this article:
Soames Job R F. Noise sensitivity as a factor influencing human reaction to noise.Noise Health 1999;1:57-68


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Soames Job R F. Noise sensitivity as a factor influencing human reaction to noise. Noise Health [serial online] 1999 [cited 2014 Jan 23 ];1:57-68
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Humans commonly experience subjectively identifiable negative emotional reactions to noise such as annoyance and dissatisfaction. It should be noted that, although reaction is commonly measured simply as annoyance, human reaction to noise can be much more than annoyance (see Hede, Bullen & Rose, 1979; Job, 1993). Reaction may include apathy, frustration, depression, anger, exhaustion, agitation, withdrawal, and helplessness. Total negative reaction is more accurately (validly and reliably) assessed through questions on overall reaction which do not specify a single type of reaction such as annoyance (e.g., questions on dissatisfaction and overall effects of the noise: Job, 1993; Job et al., 1996). Therefore, in this paper the term reaction will be employed to refer to this entire set of negative reactions to noise. Each reaction is not considered separately, because of the dearth of data on the various forms of reaction, particularly in relation to sensitivity.

The impact of reaction may range from a minor disturbance, to a substantial loss of life quality, to profound debilitation. Such reaction is of major importance in relation to the effects of noise in two ways. Reaction constitutes a health effect in it's own right within the World Health Organisation definition of health as "A state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity" (WHO, 1947, 1994).

Second, reaction may be a major causal factor in the other apparent health effects of noise (with the probable exception of hearing loss). Logically, reaction may be expected to harm health, because reaction is a psychological stress (Evans, 1998; Hatfield & Job, 1998; Hiroto & Seligman, 1975; and see Berglund & Lindvall, 1995 or Job, 1996 for reviews related to community noise), and psychological stress is known to harm physical health (Sarafino, 1994). Furthermore, reaction is important as it may produce other health outcomes, in addition to, or to a greater extent than, noise exposure. Health effects have been found to be more closely correlated with reaction than with noise exposure. For example, the Sydney Airport Health Study revealed that the anticipation of increased aircraft noise exposure produced greater reaction as well as more reported physiological responses to the noise even prior to any actual change in noise exposure (Job et al., 1996a; Hatfield et al., 1998). These results identify a correspondence between changed reaction and changed physiological effects in the absence of changed noise exposure. In addition, Neus et al. (1983) observed that antihypertensive medication use was proportional to noise annoyance but not related to noise exposure. Other health effects are also related to reaction (over and above any observed relationship with noise exposure) including blood pressure in adults (Lercher & Kofler, 1993; and see Babisch, 1998, 1998a, for a methodological reviews of the cardiovascular effects of noise and further evidence of a close relationship between effects and reaction), blood pressure in children (Schmeck & Pouska, 1993), nervous stomach (Ohrstrom, 1989), and self-reported health and wellbeing (Lercher & Widman, 1993; Ohrstrom, 1993a; Rehm, 1982). Finally, in many studies which identify a relationship between noise exposure and a health outcome, the possibility of a closer relationship between reaction and the relevant health outcome was not, or could not be, addressed (e.g., Kryter, 1990; Meecham & Shaw, 1979).

In sum, the importance of reaction per se and the possible role of reaction, over and above the role of noise exposure, in predicting (and possibly causing: Job, 1996) other health effects of noise lend great importance the any factors which may affect reaction.

Although in aggregated data, noise exposure affords good prediction of reaction (see Fidell et al., 1991; Fields, 1994), at the level of individual data this is not the case. In data grouped by area, noise exposure and reaction show a mean correlation of over .80, whereas for individual data the correlation drops to .42 (Job, 1988; Job & Hatfield, 1998; see also Fields, 1992). This reduction is probably due to the significant influences of several factors of the individuals on their reaction to noise (see Fields, 1992; Job, 1988). The two variables which show the strongest relationship with reaction (other than exposure) are noise sensitivity and attitude to the noise source (Fields, 1992; McKennell, 1973; Schuemer & Schuemer-Kors, 1983; Stansfeld, 1992). Noise sensitivity is of further interest because of its complex relationship with mental health (and depression, in particular), independently of noise exposure (Stansfeld, 1992). Thus, the focus of this paper is noise sensitivity. This paper reviews the meaning and measurement of noise sensitivity, methodological issues in the relevant research, the basic evidence relating noise sensitivity to reaction, and the factors contained within the general term noise sensitivity (which suggest that it is not a unitary concept as is often assumed).

Defining Noise Sensitivity

Noise sensitivity in one of those terms most of us think we understand, but do not explicitly define except by default of the way we measure it (see the section below on measurement). McKennell (1963) and Stansfeld (1992) have each noted two potentially distinct concepts of noise sensitivity: general susceptibility to noise and sensitivity to annoyance (not necessarily by noise). Noise sensitivity has been defined in many ways: Defined operationally (as reviewed by Stansfeld, 1992, p8) or defined post hoc by outcome as was done by Moreira & Bryan (1972, p454), or defined as an attitude which increases reaction to noise (again, see Stansfeld, 1992, p8). To define noise sensitivity operationally entails many logical problems (Maze, 1983), while defining it in the latter manner may make it's meaning too broad. It may be useful to distinguish between noise sensitivity arising from overall reactivity to noise, and noise sensitivity arising from other person factors which are specific to a particular noise source and so may increase reaction to that noise source alone (e.g., negative attitudes to a particular noise source: for reviews of the relevant evidence see Fields, 1992 and Job, 1988). Noise sensitivity should be defined more specifically. The extent to which any sensitivity is exclusive to noises (generally, not any particular noise) rather than extending to other modes of stimulation (tactile, visual, olfactory and taste sensitivity) is a matter for empirical investigation, which, in this author's view, should not be specified within the definition of noise sensitivity. Thus, noise sensitivity includes factors which may make the person more vulnerable to noises in general.

The following definition is offered as providing the appropriate level of specificity: Noise sensitivity refers to the internal states (be they physiological, psychological [including attitudinal], or related to life style or activities conducted) of any individual which increase their degree of reactivity to noise in general.

Thus, the following factors could be components of noise sensitivity: Level of physiological reactivity to stimulation generally; hearing acuity; attitudes to noise in general (but not to a specific noise source); beliefs about harmful effects of noise in general; vulnerability caused by stressors other than noise; level of social support and other available coping mechanisms. Within this general definition of noise sensitivity, it may prove useful to distinguish various types of sensitivity: physiological reactivity to noise in general; psychological reactivity; degree of coping; etc. The extent to which these factors are independent will be another matter of empirical investigation. However, in the absence of relevant data, and without being able to specify how inter-related these factors will be (e.g., physiological reactivity may be detected by an individual and so change the psychological factors; or beliefs may create more physiological reactivity), noise sensitivity should not yet be further specified in terms of these contributing factors.

It is noteworthy that the definition offered does not include certain factors which are nonetheless relevant to reactivity to noise. Specifically, attitudes to a particular noise source (e.g., a belief that an airport is economically useful) are excluded on the basis that they influence reaction to only that source, rather than noise in general. Furthermore, this exclusion is consistent with current usage of relevant terms, with attitudes to the noise source being generally considered as a separate entity. Other factors have not been included because they may be more appropriately interpreted in other terms (e.g., time spent at home may be more usefully seen as an exposure factor, although it should be noted that it is not closely related to reaction in any case: Job, 1993).

The Measurement of Noise Sensitivity

In both field and laboratory studies, noise sensitivity is usually measured by self-report, in one of three ways.

First, subjects or respondents may be asked directly to rate their own noise sensitivity, with a single question. For example, Stansfeld, Sharp, Gallacher and Babisch (1993) employed the question: "Would you say you were more sensitive or less sensitive than other people to noise?" (Options: More, Less, Same, Don't know). Such single questions may require rating relative to others, or as an absolute rating.

Second, based on the work of Weinstein (1978), various scales have been developed involving multiple questions about noise sensitivity. These scales typically involve, 10, 20 or 21 questions such as rating agreement with statements like "If its noisy I like to go somewhere quiet" or directly reporting the degree of sensitivity in various situations. Such scales have been employed by Weinstein (1978, 1980), Stansfeld (1992), Stansfeld et al. (1993) and Ohrstrom et al. (1988).

Third, respondents may be asked to rate their reaction (e.g., annoyance) , not sensitivity, to various noise situations other than the target noise under investigation, as a more direct measurement of the outcome of sensitivity to noise generally. Situations include "being woken by a dog barking" and "rustling papers at the movies" or "conversation is interrupted by traffic noise". Such scales have been employed by Bullen et al. (1991), Hede & Bullen (1982), Job et al. (1991), Job & Hede (1989), and Stansfeld (1992).

Noise sensitivity measured in each of these ways has been shown to correlate with reaction to the target noise (see later section).

Methodological Issues

The essential finding that reaction is correlated with noise sensitivity is most obviously interpreted in terms of noise sensitivity influencing reaction. However, given the silence of correlations with respect to the underlying causal sequence, alternative explanations should be considered. In principle, a genuine positive correlation between reaction and noise sensitivity could arise from any of three causal connections: noise sensitivity influences reaction; reaction influences noise sensitivity; or some third variable directly influences both reaction and noise sensitivity independently, without either of the latter variables influencing each other see [Figure 1].

Taking first the possibility that reaction influences noise sensitivity, this seems unlikely. There are many known factors affecting reaction: Greater reaction could be caused more negative attitudes towards the noise source, or more reaction-arousing noise [including more exposure, more night-time noise (Berglund & Lindvall, 1995), more noise events (Hede & Bullen, 1982; Job, Bullen & Burgess, 1991), more impulsivity (Bullen et al., 1991; de Jong & Commins, 1982), and more low frequency components (Berglund, Hassmen & Job, 1996)]. However, there is no obvious mechanism by which these would cause more noise sensitivity. Furthermore, the causal sequence: more noise leads to more reaction, and more reaction leads to more noise sensitivity, predicts a positive correlation between noise exposure and noise sensitivity. The available data tell against this prediction, with the relevant correlation typically being negative or non-significant (e.g., Bullen & Hede, 1984; Hede & Bullen, 1982, 1982a; Job et al., 1991; Job & Hede, 1989; Langdon, 1976; Large & Ludlow, 1975; Lopez-Barrio & Carles, 1993; McKennell, 1973; Schuemer & Schuemer­Kors, 1983; Tarnopolsky et al., 1978; van Dongen, 1980; but see McKennell, 1980 for a rare exception). The negative correlation is consistent with self-selection of more sensitive residents to quieter areas.

Finally, the noise sensitivity-reaction correspondence could be explained in terms of some third factor which influences both these variables independently, with the latter variables not affecting each other. This account is rather more difficult to test unless the third variable is specified. It may seem that there is no reasonable candidate third variable. However, three possible candidates are identifiable which could fill this role: question response style, general negativity, and noise exposure itself.

Response style refers to the differing tendencies of people to employ the end points of a response scale. Thus, while some respondents are comfortable with answering a 10 or a 0 on a 0 to 10 response scale, or strongly agree or strongly disagree- the endpoints of the typical five point agreement scale, others are more inclined to limit themselves to a 2 to 8 range, and the agree to disagree options. Such an individual difference could inadvertently produce a correlation between otherwise unrelated scales, and this could apply to noise sensitivity and reaction. While it seems unlikely that this possible account could produce the correlations observed (see later section), it has not been subjected to critical empirical test and deserves such examination. This account could be tested by adding noise unrelated questions on subjective issues to a socio-acoustic investigation, allowing measurement of the individual tendencies to employ the endpoints. The present account predicts a correlation between this measure, noise sensitivity, and reaction.

The next candidate for the possible third variable is negativity. While there is evidence that both noise reaction and sensitivity are linked to negativity (Stansfeld, 1992; Weinstein, 1980), this negativity may itself be seen as a component of noise sensitivity. This is consistent with the definition of noise sensitivity defended above. However, it is noteworthy that when negativity and noise sensitivity are assessed separately for their prediction of reaction, noise sensitivity enters the regression equation while negativity does not (Hede & Bullen, 1982).

The final apparent possible third variable is noise itself. That is, noise does produce reaction and if noise also caused noise sensitivity then a reaction-noise sensitivity relationship would be inadvertently generated. There are mechanisms by which this could occur. For example, those living in noisy areas are, of course, surrounded by people in their own home or in the homes around them who are similarly noise exposed. Thus, through discussion of the negative effects of noise in the home or in the neighbourhood, people could be socialised to be more aware of, and more sensitive to, the effects of the noise. Personal experience of the effects of noise could also increase sensitivity. However, such accounts also critically predict a positive correlation between noise sensitivity and noise exposure, which is inconsistent with the data (as reviewed above). It seems that either noise exposure has little effect on noise sensitivity, or that opposing influences (socialisation of noise sensitivity, adaptation to the noise [Vallet, Maurin, Page, Fauvre & Pasiaudi, 1978; Morrell et al., 1998; but see Weinstein, 1982], and self-selection of more noise sensitive residents into quieter areas) cancel each other out.

Some of the above concerns reflect a more general concern with the self-report nature of both noise sensitivity and reaction. While people may not commonly lie in social surveys, they are influenced by many extraneous variables (Schuman & Presser, 1981). The major concern with surveys of reaction to noise is the possibility that people are motivated to misrepresent their true reaction in order to send a message to relevant authorities and raise the probability of having something done about the noise. However, this possible effect would seem unlikely unless the residents had a genuinely negative reaction to the noise, because otherwise there is no motivation to get something done about it. Furthermore, this possibility can be countered by presenting the survey as being about neighbourhood quality and not revealing the focus on noise, or a particular noise source, until at least one critical reaction rating has been recorded (for example hidden among other noises as a general question about neighbourhood noise). This is a common procedure (e.g., Hede & Bullen, 1982, 1982a; Job et al., 1996; O'Laughlin et al., 1986). Furthermore, in such studies the reported reactions to the other noises constitute the measurement of noise sensitivity which is thus also taken before the noise focus of the survey is apparent.

Overall, it seems that the most likely account of the noise sensitivity-reaction correlation is that noise sensitivity influences reaction. However, correlations are silent as to causal sequence and thus other account cannot be completely eliminated in observational studies.

Noise sensitivity - reaction relationships

The relationship between noise sensitivity and reaction has been researched most commonly in field studies of residents, but also in field studies of workers and in laboratory research.

Laboratory investigation reveals that self­reported sensitivity is correlated with the extent of objective effects of noise. For example, more noise sensitive subjects show higher skin conductance response amplitude with slower habituation of the response to the noise (Stansfeld & Shine, 1993), and greater changes in heart rate to noise (Abel, 1990; Ising et al., 1980; Rovekamp, 1983; Stansfeld & Shine, 1993). These important results have several implications. Noise sensitivity-reaction relationships extend to non-subjective effects, and thus do not appear to arise purely from correspondence of self-report measures. Similarly, noise sensitivity-reaction relationships do not arise purely from individual differences in the use of the range of a response scale. These findings also add weight to the evidence against noise sensitivity-reaction relationships arising from noise exposure as the causal link. Finally, noise sensitivity predicts objectively measured physiological reactivity to noise rather than only the introspective judgement of the effects of noise (reaction).

Field studies of residents reveal significant positive correlations between noise sensitivity and reaction, despite minimal correlation between noise exposure and noise sensitivity. (In a review of the relevant research, the mean correlation of noise sensitivity with reaction was .30, and the mean correlation of noise sensitivity with noise exposure was -.01: Job, 1988). Furthermore, with noise exposure controlled, noise sensitivity-reaction correlations remain strong (correlations of .45, .34 and .25: Fields & Walker, 1982, Lopez-Barrio & Carles, 1993, and McKennell, 1973, respectively; but see Langdon, 1976, for an exceptional result). A study of airforce personnel working in buildings of varying aircraft noise exposure around military airforce bases in Australia revealed similar relationships between noise sensitivity and reaction to those found in residents, with a correlation between sensitivity and reaction of .26, and between sensitivity and noise exposure of .01 (Job et al., 1991). The latter correlation is also relevant to the earlier consideration of the mechanisms underlying the lack of a noise sensitivity-noise exposure correlation. It indicates the absence of a relationship between noise sensitivity and noise exposure under circumstances which allow only minimal (or no) self-selection of more sensitive respondents to less noise, because of airforce determination of working location. Thus, this finding suggests that in the absence of such self-selection to counter any tendency for more noise exposure to create more (or less) noise sensitivity, no such relationship is observed.

Finally, noise sensitivity also exhibits relationships with other health related variables, such as sleep loss in women (Nivison & Endresen, 1993). Stansfeld (1992) reported a complex set of inter-relationships between noise sensitivity, noise exposure, reaction and depression, such that more noise sensitive respondents appear to exhibit more depression in response to noise. However, the pattern of results suggests that in this case noise sensitivity may be acting as a marker of susceptibility to depression.

The Nature of Noise Sensitivity

When noise sensitivity is measured via the report of the degree of reaction (typically annoyance) to many noise circumstances, the multiple item scale may be factor analysed. This has been done in a number of studies, including studies of noise from aircraft, artillery, rifle range, and power stations. [Table 1] shows the noise situations employed in these studies and reports the factor analysis results. These results consistently show that, despite ubiquitous reference to noise sensitivity as a single entity in the literature, in fact noise sensitivity is not a unitary concept. Rather, it generally contains two distinct factors: sensitivity to loud noises produced at a distance from the hearer (e.g., road traffic or jackhammer noise), and sensitivity to situations of distraction or close but quieter noises (e.g., rustling paper at the movies, people talking while watching television). More consistent availability of eigen values and reliability analyses would provide more parametric detail of the factors. The result shown in [Table 1] for the Hede and Bullen (1982) study of aircraft noise is not exceptional in an empirical sense, but rather the single factor arises from not having included any of the items which form the second factor. Thus, the only slightly deviant result is in the study of power stations in which transportation noises were factored into factor 2 instead of factor 1. This interesting result may have occurred because of the unusually low levels of exposure to the transportation noises in the small, quiet towns involved in this study. Thus, for the minimal exposures to traffic and aircraft noise experienced by these respondents, it makes sense to view these noises as quiet distracting noises.

These two different types of noise sensitivity have somewhat distinct relationships with reaction to noise. [Table 2] presents the correlations between the different sensitivities and reaction, as well as noise exposure. In general, noise sensitivity factor 1 shows a stronger relationship with reaction that does factor 2, as would be expected given that the noise sources under investigation are distant sources. Again, the power station study produced an apparently exceptional result (equal correlation of the two sensitivity scales with reaction). However, this result may be explained by the relatively low levels of power station noise exposure involved, and the somewhat unusual factor results in this study as noted above. Both factors show negative but usually quite small relationships with noise exposure consistent with slight self-selection of more sensitive residents into quieter areas.

Concluding Comments

Noise sensitivity has been shown to be a non­unitary concept. Factor analyses of the situations employed in the measurement of noise sensitivity in a number of studies reveal two factors. However, because factor analysis results are dependent on the items employed, it is possible that with additional items even more factors may be identified. Nonetheless, we know that at least two factors exist. Consistent with their apparent meanings, noise sensitivity factor 1 has been more strongly related to reaction to loud noise than noise sensitivity factor 2. These results support consideration of various components of noise sensitivity. Such consideration in research requires the detection of the different components of noise sensitivity via the series of questions on reaction to different noise situations. The relationship between these sensitivity factors and an overall question on noise sensitivity is also not well established, and would constitute useful future research.

More research is also needed on the impacts of these factors on reaction, and on other health effects. For example, studies of other more neglected noise sources, such as noise from neighbours, may reveal stronger correlations with the second noise sensitivity factor. In addition, these factors may interact with other factors. For example, people who spend more of their leisure time reading rather than in more physically active pursuits, may show reaction more related to noise sensitivity factor 2 than factor 1.

Greater understanding and appreciation of individual differences in reaction to noise (such as noise sensitivity) may also promote more reasoned treatment of residents concerned with noise. The common finding that some residents are greatly affected by the noise while others are not significantly affected by the same noise, is too often interpreted as evidence for the lack of veracity of noise effects rather than reflecting genuine underlying differences between people.


The helpful comments and ideas of J. Hatfield, H. Miedema and P.J. Stallen are gratefully acknowledged.[65]



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