So You Want to Be A Scientist 2012 Experiments - Horrible Noises

Original Idea

Izzy Thomlinson

Name: Isabel Thomlinson

Occupation: A-level student

Age: 18

Location: Shropshire

Question: What makes some people more sensitive to nasty noises like fingernails on a blackboard, or squeaky polystyrene?


Izzy wanted to know whether your sensitivity to horrible noises depends on factors like age, gender and personality. Are men more sensitive to women? Do teenagers react differently to horrible noises than older people?

Together with her mentor, Prof Trevor Cox, they tested noises that people find annoying for irrational reasons, such as squeaky balloons or microphone feedback. Other nasty noises are horrible for more rational reasons, because the alert us to disease or discomfort, for example the sound of vomiting or babies crying.


The results showed that age, gender and personality influence how badly people are affected by horrible noises.

Women rated all noises as significantly more annoying and horrible than the men did.

Children rated the noises as most horrible, followed closely by older people. Young adults between 19 and 29 were least bothered by the scraping sounds that Izzy tested.

This pattern in age changed slightly when she looked at some of the sounds individually. Sensitivity to 'nails down a blackboard' and 'squeaky polystyrene' decreased with increase in age, meaning that children were most sensitive to these particular noises, while older people were less affected by them.

Finally, people's personality also affects how badly disturbed they are by horrible noises. As might be expected, people with Neurotic personalities rated the noises as most horrible. But surprisingly people with an Open or Agreeable personality were more affected than any of the remaining types.

Data Gathering

Izzy Thomlinson at the Big Bang Fair

Izzy and Trevor took their experiment to The Big Bang Fair at Birmingham NEC from 15-17 March 2012. Around 1,200 volunteers aged 6-60 heard and rated seven horrible sounds.

The team then launched a national online experiment and 13,000 website visitors took the test.

Follow Izzy's Research Diary on Facebook

To talk to Izzy and Trevor about their experiment, click 'like' to follow their Facebook research diary.

Scientific Mentor

Trevor Cox

Trevor Cox
Prof of Acoustic Engineering
University of Salford
Speciality: Performance room acoustics

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