Noise levels and the type of noise can affect a person’s motivation in the workplace, a study has shown.

A common complaint from those working in an open plan office is the noise from others in the workplace by way of talking, meetings and phone calls; commonly called ‘babble’.

UNSW Canberra honorary academic Marion Burgess said the study primarily focused on workplaces related to transportation and was assisted with funding from the Australian Acoustical Society Education Grant.

“The studywas undertaken with colleague Brett Molesworth from UNSW Sydney, to investigate if noise in a workplace, such as the babble in an office, can induce learned helplessness.

“When individuals learn that their behaviour is independent of a situation, this learning can affect future behaviour. So, if they learn that nothing they do, or can do, will make a change they ‘give up’ trying,” she said.

Working in the area of human factors primarily in aviation, Brett Molesworth from the UNSW School of Aviation, and Marion Burgess working in the area of environmental and workplace noise, both felt it was relevant to explore this area.

“In all aircraft, noise is present in both the cabin and cockpit and while it is generally below the workplace noise limit level of 85 dBA. We have found in the various studies we have undertaken that if affects various aspects of behaviour and cognition,” Ms Burgess said.

“The noise in aircraft is primarily broadband (noise distributed over a wide frequency range), but in open office spaces there is the babble of other workers and we became interested if there was a difference in the effect of the different types of noise.

“It is in these two environments that individuals learn their craft or skill and determining how the environment affects future performance is important, especially in aviation where it is safety critical,” Mr Molesworth said.

The research involved participants, in this case university students, who were randomly divided into three conditions (Control, Escape, Inescapable). Of the 66 participants, half were exposed to noise typical of that present in the check-in area for an airport (i.e., babble) and the other half to noise typical of that in an aircraft cabin (i.e., broadband). Both babble and broadband noise were shown to induce learned helplessness (i.e., affects motivation).

“In the first part, and over a number of presentations of the noise, participants in the escape group were able to successfully ‘escape’ the noise by turning it off when they pressed the correct sequence of keys on a keyboard. 

“Those in the inescapable group were unable to turn off the noise no matter what keys they pressed. Participants in the control group only completed the second part of the study. In the second part, the correct key sequence was just a little more complex and all should have been able to turn off the noise with the correct sequence, as indicated by the performance of the control group,” Ms Burgess said.

The study found that noise at 75 dBA and over which they may have no control can lead to learned helplessness in humans. For the group that learned they could escape from noise in the first stage, babble noise was found to have a greater effect on performance in the second stage.

The participants also rated the perceived effect of the noise, including how they felt it affected their performance. The subjective response was in agreement with the objective findings.

“These findings provide support for taking measures to reduce the background noise in the workplace to avoid cognitive and behavioural effects such as learned helplessness,” she said.

Can babble and broadband noise present in air transportation induce learned helplessness? was published in late 2019 and is available at