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J Comp Psychol. 2008 Aug;122(3):235-51. doi: 10.1037/0735-7036.122.3.235.

The cocktail party problem: what is it? How can it be solved? And why should animal behaviorists study it?

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  • 1Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA.


Animals often use acoustic signals to communicate in groups or social aggregations in which multiple individuals signal within a receiver's hearing range. Consequently, receivers face challenges related to acoustic interference and auditory masking that are not unlike the human cocktail party problem, which refers to the problem of perceiving speech in noisy social settings. Understanding the sensory solutions to the cocktail party problem has been a goal of research on human hearing and speech communication for several decades. Despite a general interest in acoustic signaling in groups, animal behaviorists have devoted comparatively less attention toward understanding how animals solve problems equivalent to the human cocktail party problem. After illustrating how humans and nonhuman animals experience and overcome similar perceptual challenges in cocktail-party-like social environments, this article reviews previous psychophysical and physiological studies of humans and nonhuman animals to describe how the cocktail party problem can be solved. This review also outlines several basic and applied benefits that could result from studies of the cocktail party problem in the context of animal acoustic communication.

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