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Year : 2003  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 18  |  Page : 57-59
The concept of noise sensitivity : Implications for noise control

Centre for Occupational and Health Psychology, School of Psychology, Cardiff University, United Kingdom

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The term "noise sensitivity" is frequently used in many areas of noise research. However, it can be used to describe several different effects and it can be measured in different ways. In noise surveys, noise sensitivity refers to the fact that individuals differ in the annoyance produced by different sources of noise. Noise sensitivity can be viewed as an independent variable, which may be directly related to outcomes such as health status, or it can be conceptualized as a factor that modifies or mediates the effects of noise exposure on the outcome measure. Noise sensitivity is highly correlated with the general trait negative affectivity, a measure of the extent to which individuals perceive or report negative features of their environment or self. Indeed, few studies have demonstrated effects of noise sensitivity that are independent of negative affectivity. This implies that it is most appropriate to examine general indicators of reported sensitivity rather than a noise-specific measure. Noise sensitivity can also be considered in terms of physiological reactivity to noise sources. Such effects are often only weakly associated with self-reports of noise sensitivity. Habituation to noise is also an important topic to consider and again this appears to be largely independent of self-reported noise sensitivity. Overall, it would appear that it is important to distinguish between subjective reports of noise sensitivity and objective indicators. Different factors will modify these two aspects of noise sensitivity and this implies that different strategies are needed to influence them. Such effects must be taken into consideration when one considers whether control should be targeted at the community in general, or whether it should also cover the most sensitive individuals.

Keywords: noise; noise sensitivity; noise control

How to cite this article:
Smith A. The concept of noise sensitivity : Implications for noise control. Noise Health 2003;5:57-9

How to cite this URL:
Smith A. The concept of noise sensitivity : Implications for noise control. Noise Health [serial online] 2003 [cited 2023 Jun 7];5:57-9. Available from: https://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2003/5/18/57/31816

  Noise Sensitivity Top

Noise is often defined as "unwanted sound". Such a definition allows for individual variation in that some sounds may be described as noise by some individuals but not others. Similarly, what is considered noise in one context may not be viewed as such in another. Individual variation in the effects of noise is often conceptualized as noise sensitivity. The above phenomena show that noise sensitivity may be viewed as both and inter- and intra-personal effects. Noise sensitivity has also been investigated in a number of outcome measures such as attitudes to noise, annoyance, physiological sensitivity, health effects and behaviour. Noise sensitivity has usually been conceptualized as a factor which mediates or modifies the effects of noise exposure, although there have been studies which have considered it as a primary independent variable.

A search of the literature reveals that it is usually measured by questionnaire. These questionnaires consist of ratings of the extent of the annoyance from different noise sources (e.g. A dripping tap, to a pneumatic drill). Such measures usually measure general sensitivity rather than that found at a particular time or in a specific context. There is a large literature showing that noise sensitive individuals report greater noise annoyance (Weinstein, 1978). The major problem with such measures is that they reflect general sensitivity rather than something specific to noise. Indeed, a large number of studies (e.g. Ohrstrom et al., 1989; Stansfeld, 1992; Smith et al., 2002) have shown strong associations between noise sensitivity and negative affectivity (the extent to which individuals perceive or report negative features of the environment or themselves). Indeed, co-varying negative affectivity can remove associations between noise sensitivity and health outcomes (Smith et al., 2002).

A second problem with noise sensitivity questionnaires is that they do not predict individual differences in effects of noise on other outcomes. For example, Stansfeld et al. (1985) found that noise sensitivity was not related to auditory thresholds or galvanic skin responses produced by noise exposure. Similarly, Dornic et al. (1990) found that noise sensitivity did not predict noise-induced changes in performance. Smith and Stansfeld (1986) found that noise sensitivity did not interact with noise exposure to influence human error. Recently, Smith and Rich (2002) reported that noise sensitivity was not related to cardiovascular changes produced by aircraft noise.

Another problem with questionnaire measures of noise sensitivity is that they ignore contextual factors which influence sensitivity. Hume et al. (2002) found that there were twice as many complaints about aircraft noise between 23.00 and 07.00 as the rest of the day. Such knowledge of contextual factors influencing noise sensitivity should clearly be used to minimize community disturbance. What other measures can be used as indicators of individual differences in response to noise? Some research has suggest that risk perception may be a better predictor of noise effects than measures of noise sensitivity (Iwata, 1992).

It is also important to consider the temporal course of noise sensitivity. Indeed, it is well established that there is often habituation to effects of noise. This habituation is often linked to exposure and control measures must consider the extent to which maximum habituation can occur. Indeed, sensitivity and habituation may represent different aspects of the same mechanism. Smith and Rich (2002) examined cardiovascular response to aircraft noise. They found that initial sensitivity to noise was then associated with faster habituation.

  Control and Sensitivity Top

One general issue in control of any factor is whether safe limits should be based on population norms or whether one should attempt to protect even the most sensitive individuals. The latter approach may seem ideal but it may lead to approaches which are too stringent to be applied. If one considers risk perceptions concerning noise and health one finds that representative samples of the general population perceive noise as being a low to moderate risk to health. This may not be the case for those exposed to high levels or those who are sensitive to even moderate noise exposure. There is a case, therefore, to consider alternative approaches for these sub-groups. These approaches might involve provision of certain types of information aimed at reducing the impact of noise. For example, it has been shown that perceived control over noise often reduces the magnitude of detrimental effects. Similarly, appropriate exposure at an early age may allow a more uniform perception of what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable exposure.

In conclusion, it is clearly important to continue research on individual variation in response to noise. Such variation can readily be discussed in guidance packages. However, it is clearly essential to first have adequate noise control for the majority of the population rather than seeking extreme measures which, although providing the potential for alleviating problems found in even very sensitive groups, may also jeopardize the extent to which control is enforced or selected.[10]

  References Top

1.Dornic S., Laaksonen T. and Ekehammer B. (1990) General self-report versus noise effect in laboratory situations. Report 9, University of Stockholm  Back to cited text no. 1    
2.Hume K., Terranova D. and Thomas C. (2002) Complaints and annoyance caused by aircraft operations: temporal patterns and individual bias. Noise and Health 4: 45-55.  Back to cited text no. 2    
3.Iwata O. (1992). The relationship of social evaluation and subjective sensitivity to environmental evaluation. Psychologia 35: 69-75.  Back to cited text no. 3    
4.Ohrstrom E., Bjoerkman M and Rylander R. (1988) Noise annoyance with regard to neurophysiological sensitivity, subjective noise sensitivity and personality variables. Psychological Medicine 18: 605-613.  Back to cited text no. 4    
5.Smith A., Nutt D., Wilson S., Rich N., Hayward S., and Heatherley S. (2002) Noise and insomnia: a study of community noise exposure, sleep disturbance, noise sensitivity and subjective reports of health. Report to the UK Department of Health and Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions.  Back to cited text no. 5    
6.Smith,A.P and Rich N. (2002) Helicopter noise, noise sensitivity, annoyance and cardiovascular response. Proceedings of Internoise 2002.  Back to cited text no. 6    
7.Smith A.P. and Stansfeld S.A. (1986) Aircraft noise exposure, noise sensitivity and everyday errors. Environment and Behavior 18: 214-226.  Back to cited text no. 7    
8.Stansfeld S.A. (1992) Noise, noise sensitivity and psychiatric disorder: Epidemiological and psychophysiological studies. Psychological Medicine; Monogr Suppl 22: 44  Back to cited text no. 8    
9.Stansfeld S.A., Clark C.R., Jenkins L. and Tarnopolsky A. (1985) Sensitivity to noise in a community sample: 1. Measurement of psychiatric disorder and personality. Psychological Medicine 15: 243-254.  Back to cited text no. 9    
10.Weinsten N.D. (1978) Individual differences in reactions to noise: A longitudinal study in a college dormitory. Journal of Applied Psychology 63: 458-466.  Back to cited text no. 10    

Correspondence Address:
A Smith
Centre for Occupational & Health Psychology, 63 Park Place, Cardiff CF10 3AS
United Kingdom
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

PMID: 12631438

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