It helps to be an extrovert
A person’s level of extroversion is thought to be a key aspect of their personality – one of the so-called ‘Big Five’ factors that determines who we are, along with things like how open we are to new experiences. According to one prominent theory, extroverts are inherently ‘understimulated’, so they tend to seek out situations which increase their level of arousal – like noisy environments. Meanwhile, introverts have the opposite problem; as the famous poet, novelist and introvert Charles Bukowski put it: “People empty me. I have to get away to refill. ”
With this in mind, it makes sense that more introverted workers would be more affected by the background noise, since anything that increases their level of arousal, like music or the chatter of colleagues , could be overwhelming. For example, a study of medical students showed that those who were more introverted tended to havemore difficulty concentrating, and feel more fatigued while performing a maths task to a soundtrack of 88 – decibel traffic noise (for perspective, that’s aboutas loud as a lawn mower).
Other major factors that are likely to influence if a colleague is the office whistler, or the person fantasising about rugby-tackling them to the floor, includehow neurotic they are(research has shown that more neurotic people are more affected by background noise when they’re trying to do mental maths), as well as their level of so-called“inhibitory control”, which roughly translates as how much control they have over their impulses.
The reasons that some people get so riled up by oddly niche sounds, like ice shaking or lettuce chewing, are less clear. Research into misophonia might provide some clues; several studies have found that the brains of people with the disorder arefundamentally different. For example, a 2017 study showed that “trigger sounds” lead tostronger-than-usual reactionsin parts of the brain that are involved with processing emotions and interpreting bodily signals, such as pain .