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|Year : 1999 | Volume
| Issue : 3 | Page : 69--79
A theoretical framework for environmental noise annoyance
Pieter Jan M Stallen
Stallen & Smit, Gentiaanstraat 13, 6813 ES ARNHEM The Netherlands
Pieter Jan M Stallen
Stallen & Smit, Gentiaanstraat 13, 6813 ES ARNHEM The Netherlands
Noise annoyance is a phenomenon of 'mind and mood'. It is only partly determined by acoustic factors: typical noise metrics (LAeq and the like) allow only the prediction of aggregated annoyance scores (community levels) with moderate degree of precision. Many non-acoustic factors have been identified with varying degrees of association with annoyance. However, the proper identification and understanding of the role of non-acoustical factors can only be achieved on the basis of sound theories about rise and reduction of noise annoyance. This article discusses first the few systematic theories to understand the relative role of acoustic and non-acoustic factors. Then, it presents a theoretical perspective that places a major nonacoustic factor in the center: perceived control. It views noise annoyance as a form of psychological stress: disturbances may tax persons resources, and different people may use different ways of coping to deal with annoyance. The focus on perceived control also highlights that for residents exposed to environmental noise 'noise management at the source' often will be an equally important external stimulus to respond to as 'noise at the source'.
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Stallen PM. A theoretical framework for environmental noise annoyance.Noise Health 1999;1:69-79
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Stallen PM. A theoretical framework for environmental noise annoyance. Noise Health [serial online] 1999 [cited 2022 May 27 ];1:69-79
Available from: https://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?1999/1/3/69/31712
Within the scientific community -and among many practitioners in the field, too- there is general agreement that, except for high levels of environmental noise exposure, in most situations annoyance and sleep disturbance are the only significant health effects. That is, in general only for levels above Ldn = 70 dB(A) observations of a certain incidence of (psycho)somatic health effects like hypertension to be noise exposure can be related to noise exposure with a sufficient level of proof (see Health Council of the Netherlands, 1994; Berglund & Lindvall, 1995). Most environmental noise exposure is below this Ldn level. This article is about one of the two health effects of environmental noise exposure at the lower levels: annoyance. Obviously, health is defined here in the broad WHO-sense so as to include well-being. No special attention will be paid to sleep disturbance. It is not known to what extent sleep disturbance per se (and by which mechanisms, such as insufficient recovery and resulting physiological stress?) generates or increases annoyance. Therefore, this article will concentrate on annoyance as generated by exposure while awake. Noise will be restricted to noise from non-impulsive intermittent sounds, such as from most forms of traffic. The objective is to set forth a theoretical model of the causation of environmental noise annoyance.
Annoyance is a psychological phenomenon. Noise too. Whereas the subjective nature of annoyance is generally recognised, this is not so with respect to noise. Yet noise is not sound or loudness of sound. (Loud) sound only becomes noise because of a particular appraisal of it. Therefore, understanding noise-induced annoyance requires the understanding of judgmental and attitudinal and, thus, socialprocesses. Such insights are needed in order to know, for example, whether a particular annoyance response is 'veridical' or is an expression of the person being upset about a non-noise characteristic of the source. And so on. A comprehensive theory of noise-induced annoyance must regard each of the following subjects: How is such annoyance generated? How does it hold on? How does it disappear? What is annoyance anyway?
Unfortunately, with more than half a century of annoyance research we still don't know much of the dynamics suggested by these questions. The prevailing research question has been "What are the determinants of annoyance?" Within this static stimulus-response frame one stimulus obviously did qualify immediately: sound itself (that is, sound intensity; peak levels, duration of time in-between sound events; etc.). This focus on acoustical factors may explain in part why other so-called non-acoustical factors have received only moderate empirical attention, and far less theoretical attention. However, various comparative studies of surveys of relevant research reveal that non-acoustical factors play a major role (Job, 1988; Fields, 1993; Guski, 1997). E.g., Fields (1993) analysed 464 findings drawn from 136 surveys and concluded that
" (…) annoyance is not affected to an important extent by ambient noise levels, the amount of time residents are at home, the type of interviewing method or any of nine demographic variables (age, sex, social status, income, education, home ownership, type of dwelling, length of residence, or receipts of benefits from the source). Annoyance is related to the amount of isolation from sound at home and to five attitudes (fear of danger from the noise source, noise prevention beliefs, general noise sensitivity, beliefs about the importance of the noise source, and annoyance with non-noise impacts of the noise source)." (p.2753)
[Table 1] presents the variables that were listed at a recent expert workshop at the Netherlands Department for Civil Aviation at which nonphysical points of application for effective noise abatement were explored. There was a general understanding that these variables could be particularly important when exposure levels change considerably, or when such changes are anticipated. Such situations offer new opportunities for expression of new (and often old) feelings. Psychological processes of 'blame and claim' may help to explain situational differences under such circumstances. E.g., Altena (reported by Passchier-Vermeer, 1993) observed that the role of attitudinal factors seems to be stronger for noise-annoyance about aircraft than about road-traffic. The slope of noiseannoyance/aircraft sound exposure appeared to be considerably steeper for respondents with a denial orientation than for those with a problemsolving orientation. This difference of slope did not exist among respondents exposed to sounds from road traffic. Against this general background of social processes Fields' conclusion above that ambient noise does not appreciably affect source specific annoyance is interesting, too, as it may similarly emphasise the role selective attention or differential sensitivity.
When matching annoyance responses to environmental sound exposure see [Figure 1] the data display an enormous variability. The range and variance in this data set are so great that "the shape of a dose-response relationship intended to summarise these findings is not greatly constrained by proximity to the data points", as Fidell & Pearsons (1997, p. 1084) understate. If the variability of the data is so large, best estimates of degree of annoyance at a certain level of exposure derived from such aggregate dose-response relationships may be 'best' only in a mathematical sense, but this will not be terribly meaningful. Needed is a disaggregation of the data set on the basis of group and individual characteristics that, for theoretical reasons, may reveal meaningfully different prevalences of annoyance in different groups. Indeed, for most non-acoustical factors there is no obvious reason to expect that they will vary neatly with sound level.
This acoustics-bias in dealing with noise by viewing non-acoustical factors as peripheral may also underlie the great interest in designing "at least one common annoyance question" to be adopted internationally (de Jong & Miedema, 1995). With this uniformity at the basis of analysis, data from different countries and/or cultural backgrounds can be merged in one file, whereafter they can be aggregated and disaggregated in many new ways. Yet, this predominantly instrumental interest obscures any theoretical interest in what answers to this question mean. A high validity of this single item measure is generally taken at face value. It is believed that the response to this question reveals unquestionably a person's real degree of annoyance. The implicit message is that standardising the measurement of the 'dependent variable' will reduce the variability of the data of [Figure 1] significantly. However, answers to a variety of questions are needed in order to understand the target response. E.g., in a recent large survey of health effects (TNO-PG/RIVM, 1998) there was a significantly lower nonresponse found among highly annoyed residents. Particularly in non-steady states or highly politicised situations such findings should not come as a surprise. What did the respondent want to 'say' by placing his mark on the questionnaire form, was there a specific message to the investigator? (see also Job, this issue). Or, in other words, what are reasons to be annoyed? Which personally valued outcomes precisely are threatened by noise exposure? How annoyed is 'quite annoyed', that is, when does the individual feel he should spend effort in changing the exposure? What options are/can be imagined personally for making adverse exposure less consequential?
Concern about such questions is not entirely new to the field. Fidell (1990, p.19) noted a decade ago:
"The view that the fundamental problems in predicting the effects of noise on individuals and communities are problems of theory, not of measurement, has slowly gained recognition".
However, recognition does not yet seem to have gained much speed. For example, in the perhaps largest environmental annoyance survey ever (TNO-PG/RIVM, 1998), the data about potential determinants of annoyance were analysed only by step-wise regression with order of inclusion determined by ad hoc interrelationships between potential determinants and annoyance. It is the purpose of this article to set forth a theoretical approach of environmental noise annoyance. Mindful of the proverbial saying that "the most practical thing is sound theory", such a theory must be
predictive of empirical events and, therefore, quantitative at least at the ordinal level: more X leads to more Y ;as simple as possible, which in the case of applied settings means: practicable.
The next section provides an overview of attempts to link links explicitly acoustical to non-acoustical determinants of noise annoyance. Special attention will be paid to the annoyance model developed by Fidell et al. Thereafter, a theoretical approach will be presented which digs deeper into the social psychological roots of annoyance. In the final section some suggestions will be made about ways in which the presented models can enlarge and aid our understanding of noise-induced annoyance.
How important are acoustical and nonacoustical factors?
The 70 year period since the first community noise survey conducted in New York City has not resulted in much theory about how environmental sounds and other 'moderators and modifiers' (see also Guski, this issue) cogenerate the psychological phenomenon of annoyance. A similar observation was made by Fidell et al. (1988, p.2110):
"In the absence of detailed treatment of issues of theoretical concern, Schultz' empirical relationship remains unsupported by theory that could justify its application to any particular circumstances".
In their extensive surveys of annoyance studies, a few years later, both Fields (1993) and Passchier Vermeer (1993) reach the conclusion that, on average, not much more than 10% of the variance of annoyance is accounted for by standard acoustical measures. If non-acoustical factors are taken into account a significant increase in explained variance can be achieved. The recent secondary analysis of a large number of noise annoyance studies by Miedema & Vos (submitted) reveals a major role for fear for the noise source and general sensitivity to noise. However, their conclusion that "attitudinal factors are much less important" is too general and needs a critical note as many attitudinal factors of a social origin (perceived control; see next section) have not been investigated in any detail yet.
In the analyses of Fields and Passchier-Vermeer acoustical and non-acoustical determinants are given equal status. Almost at the same time of these surveys a model with a clear sequential status was developed by Fidell, Schultz & Green (1988; also Green & Fidell, 1991; Fidell & Piersons, 1997) in particular to gain a better understanding of the variability of annoyance responses in a community cf. [Figure 1]. The authors emphasise that they are well aware of the complexity of the annoyance phenomenon but that science has the obligation to parsimony. The model of Fidell c.s. can be summarised as follows:
1. Individuals are subjected to a certain noise exposure L.
2. This external treatment/stimulus L leads to an internal psychophysical stimulus m, the noise dosis. This noise dosis is best estimated as apparent effective loudness using Stevens' compressive transformations. m is a "population parameter" as it is considered equal for all individuals of the population subjected to the same L.
3. Individuals differ in their response x to m (and to L). The exponential distribution is chosen to approximate best the various possible individual reactions x to m.
4. If x is more intense than a certain criterion level A, then the individual reports high annoyance HA.
"The value of A may vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood for any number of nonacoustical reasons" Fidell & Piersons (1997, p.1088) state. This may explain that "Two communities in which 20% of the residents describe themselves as highly annoyed might have quite different noise exposures. Such differences are attributed to differences in response bias among the residents." (ibidem). Factors that may make communities differ in A, for example, are various political and media activities, the commercial or convenience value that residents in one neighbourhood associate with the operation of a noise source, and so forth. Green & Fidell (1991) show how for different sites j within a survey, that is with different levels of L, the measured proportion of HAj can be used to estimate Aj .
The model of Fidell et al. might be presented graphically by the threshold-model of [Figure 2]. The nature and number of the non-acoustical factors determine the height A of the threshold. The relative strength of the response x with respect to 'wall A' determines whether x will get through or not. By calculating the criterion value A for the entire survey as the mean of the annoyance criteria j (and, thus, by assuming that the various sets of respondents at the sites j are equivalent in terms of A) a more accurate dosisresponse curve for the population as a whole can be derived. A resulting reduction of variability in annoyance data might be viewed as support for the justness of the assumption that, with respect to A, the same factors are operating within the various samples/sites. Although Fidell et al. are clearly successful in reducing the variability of the original data, their rescaled data still display significant variability. Apparently, not all nonacoustical influence is grasped by the A if this is construed on the basis of comparing communities on a geographical scale (= sites). By which other characteristics might we distinguish meaningfully between groups of residents? To get on their track we should set one step backward and start with an analysis of what actually is annoyance.
Annoyance by noise as a form of psychological stress
When thinking about noise annoyance the immediate association that one may have is the association of annoyance with something unwanted and disliked. The nature of this disliking is rooted in the fact that the exposure to noise makes it difficult or impossible to attain something valued. This hindering of goalattainment is the nature of disturbance. How dissatisfying or unwanted the disturbance is, is determined, in principle, by two factors. A first loss component from not realising the value aimed at, and a second loss component because of any idle investment in the activity (material and/or social) that should lead to the valued outcome. To give an example, not having understood an important message because of exposure to strong sounds is a loss of the first nature. In case one had travelled a long way to listen to that particular speaker, an additional loss of the second nature will have been created. Disturbance may apply to sensory processes (mostly hearing or sleeping) or mental processes, such as expectations. The italic part of [Figure 3] shows the respective patterns. This structure represents the popular annoyance model: nonacoustical factors are regarded as affecting the relationship between sound exposure (acoustical measure) and annoyance (e.g., TNO-PG/RIVM, 1998).
Yet perceived disturbance, however large, is not the sole major determinant of annoyance. Perceived control is another major factor. Lazarus' (1966) Psychological stress and the coping process has stimulated a wealth of research which revealed empirically two major determinant of stress: perceived threat and perceived control. Indeed, as we will see below, perceived control is a generic term applicable to several mental, that is, cognitive and/or affective mechanisms that come into play when exposed to a particular threat or confronted with the possibility of consequential change (see, e.g., Folkman, 1984). The notion of perceived disturbance is not much different from feared disturbance or perceived threat. All have in common that they may be taxing a person's resources and, thereby, they may be generating psychological stress. Perceived disturbance is annoying or stressful depending upon the perceived possibilities to stand up against the disturbance or cause of dissatisfaction. In general, psychological stress will be higher for lower levels of perceived control. High disturbance and high control may be less annoying than moderate disturbance and no control. Therefore, the usual annoyance model (the italics part of [Figure 3] should be expanded with the perceived control factor.
With this model in mind one would expect, e.g., that Fields' factor "amount of [acoustical] isolation" (quotation from introductory section) will influence annoyance primarily through the perceived disturbance pathway, whereas "noise prevention beliefs" will impact through the perceived control pathway. These two complementary pathways have been named originally primary appraisal and secondary appraisal (Lazarus, 1966) as the appraisal of threat and the appraisal of resources to face the treat, respectively. Notwithstanding important distinctions between Psychological stress and the coping process and Emotion and adaptation the two types of appraisal have stayed at the heart of Lazarus' theoretical studies. In Lazarus (1991), on the one hand, the scope of analysis is broadened from primarily negative or threatening encounters to encounters also with positive and challenging prospects. On the other hand, the scope has been narrowed by the focus on "core relational themes, which express the key relational harm or benefit" (p.125). In his 1991 study he emphasised the relational tone of appraisal and the emotions it serves. Primary appraisal concerns what is at stake when the person-environment relationship changes; its motivational components are "goal relevance, goal congruency (…), and type of egoinvolvement"(Lazarus, 1991, p.39). "Blame or credit, coping potential, and future expectations" guides secondary appraisals (ibidem).
As indicated above, perceived control is a generic term. [Table 1] presented several factors that highlight different aspects of perceived control. These factors perform their function as part of the secondary appraisal process. For example, the factors of predictability and trust are not much different from the Lazarus' notions of future expectations and credit. It merely are different ways to achieve the same: to live a life with no more (un)certainty than desired. Some insight has been gained already in the role of perceived control with respect to residential responses to industrial hazards. For example, Stallen & Tomas (1988), showed that among the residents who perceived a significant industrial threat those residents who believed in timely warning and appropriate opportunities of escape were less likely to feel insecure or prone to deny the presence of the threat. How precisely these elements are interrelated in other contexts, such as when being upset about a noise source needs to be investigated. In the case of annoyance by environmental noise, with its typical character of chronic exposure, one might expect that, in general, forms of mental control of the personenvironment interaction would be operative more often than decisional (behavioural) control. Taking concrete steps to alter the exposure, which can vary from staying vigilant about possible practical changes at the source ('voice') to exploring opportunities to move, is more demanding and consequential than the exertion of mental control. Therefore, decisional control may become relevant typically when mental control is insufficient. However, not all individuals will cope with psychological stress (read: annoyance) in a vigilant and problem focuses way. Stallen & Tomas demonstrated that only individuals with an internal locus of control (that is, who see their life not as generally determined by outside factors) are likely to do so. Those with an external locus of control are more likely to engage in various avoidance or denial responses. A similar observation was made in the domain of annoyance research by Altena (see the introductory section).
Coping with annoyance essentially is a reappraisal of the person-environment situation, as it requires the formation of new ideas either about the person in a way by which he can abide the environment, or about the future environment (or both). In principal, reappraisal is a matter of mental (cognitive and/or emotional) change including the formation of new behavioural intentions and, under circumstances, the undertaking of correspondent actions. Non-noise related characteristics of the person or environment are likely to be relevant particularly at this stage of reconsidering the (need for a change of the) person-environment relationship. This could explain why residents may agree both to "Well, you get used to it" as, at the same time, to "Yes, I am pretty much annoyed about the noise here". Theoretically, the strong relationship between annoyance and "beliefs about the importance of the noise source, and annoyance with non-noise impacts of the noise source" (Fields, 1993, p.2753) may well exist because of the coping potential of these factors. Because such beliefs always have an evaluative component (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) they are labelled 'other attitudes' in [Figure 3]. Coping is a process of re-appraisal with information flowing back and forth; this is why several arrows of [Figure 3] are pointing in two directions. Thus, to a certain extent, annoyance may determine perception, too. This inverse causation cannot be excluded, especially with the situations that interest us here: long term exposure, and (most often) non-steady states.
How can the psychological stress model of noise-annoyance aid our understanding?
By adopting the perspective of psychological stress theory several contributions can be made to the study of noise-induced annoyance. Firstly, the theoretical categories of primary and. secondary appraisal once more stress the need to distinguish clearly between disturbance (both physical and perceived disturbance) and annoyance. For example, this distinction has not been made properly in Dutch aviation-noise annoyance policy where an aggregate measure of perceived disturbances has been labelled 'specific annoyance' ("gene specifique / gene objective": Bitter, 1970). Being disturbed does not imply per se that one is annoyed, neither does greater perceived disturbance directly result in more annoyance. For annoyance to be generated the individual must appraise any exposure to disturbing sounds also as not adequately under control. Therefore, e.g., it should be expected that high perceived disturbance leads to more annoyance when the individual perceives high control than when low control; also, the condition of high perceived disturbance + high perceived control leads to less annoyance than moderate perceived disturbance + low control. Secondly, perceived control may be the most important non-acoustical determinant of environmental noise annoyance for two reasons. First of all, there are several ways to experience such a control, or the lack of it. Those different forms, varying from mental control (e.g., predictability of future exposure) to behavioural control (e.g., ability to alter exposure) may be prominent at different stages of the rise and fall of annoyance. But all these types of control are not entirely subjective: to a large extent perceived control is rooted in how noise is managed in practice by the source. Thus, pointing at perceived control implies pointing at another external determinant of annoyance next to sound levels: the management of sounds levels see [Figure 3]. This outside stimulus is as much a stimulus for annoyance causation as the stimulus 'sound' itself. Viewing noise-induced annoyance within the perspective of psychological stress draws the attention in the most direct way to the actual control at the source. Whereas perceived control would be treated traditionally as a modifying and secondary variable in generating noise annoyance, it is assigned a major and moderating role now. Like one participant at the round-up of the workshop underlying this special issue noted: All annoyance is about, is "who is in control?".
Finally, from the point of view of psychological stress theory, the generation of noise-induced annoyance is essentially a dynamic process. Acoustical and non-acoustical factors are appraised and re-appraised by the individual on the basis of his needs and the resources available to satisfy them. Neither needs nor resources are fixed: they change as they (must) keep in touch with a permanently changing social environment. Therefore, in principal, any measure of noise-induced annoyance reveals a temporary state. Adaptation to gradual changes is the rule. This is so in a psychophysical sense. Typically, the situations of interest to annoyance research are characterised by a long duration of exposure. It is a fairly well established fact that incremental decibel-changes over long periods of exposure are hard to notice and, therefore, they will not alter any initial state of annoyance. For example, Fidell, Silvati & Piersons (1998) surveyed community responses near SeattleTacoma International Airport during 1989 through 1995. They conclude that there is "little reason to believe that gradual decreases of 1,5 to 3 dB in aircraft noise exposure levels occurring over an extended period of time are readily noticeable or meaningful in airport neighbourhoods." (p.55). Adaptation takes place also in a psychological sense. Humans are endowed with the ability to create internally congruent or at least non-conflicting attitudes towards their environment. The double arrows of [Figure 3] show this capacity of permanently reconsidering appraisals of environmental noise.
Above two models have been discussed which both aim to relate acoustical to non-acoustical factors. The model of Fidell c.s. does not specify the nature of the non-acoustical factors that determine A . This in itself is no drawback of the model, as it was not designed for the purpose of investigating precisely which non-acoustical factors are operating when and where, and by which psychological mechanism. Its purpose is to establish as close as possible the relationship between sound levels and noise annoyance. A good fit not only would be an extra argument to invest in sound reduction technologies but it would also provide a sound basis for zoning policies. Indeed, the typical regulatory interest in setting land use restrictions on the basis of sound levels may explain the model's emphasis on the psychophysical transformation of sound levels (m) as the single cause of annoyance, with other factors assigned only the role of moderating the expression of annoyance. As stated above, the fit after rescaling annoyance responses on the basis of a community specific 'response bias' A is better but there still remains a considerable variation with sound levels limiting the practical application of the curve after rescaling. However, more important is that, aside from the interest in reducing exposure to sound levels, there often is another major practical objective of policy: the reduction of annoyance by the most effective means. This need not be land-use restriction. Without substantive knowledge of the very building blocks of A it is difficult to see how this objective can be achieved.
The psychological stress model presented in this paper offers an expressly psychological explanation of noise annoyance. Therefore, it might be considered a complement rather than an alternative to the model of Fidell c.s. The emphasis of the latter approach is ultimately most on noise reduction, with the most important questions being "How much noise is too much noise, how do you know? Who decides how much noise is too much noise?" (Fidell, 1992, p.236). The emphasis of the stress model is most on annoyance reduction with -if you wish- noise substituted by annoyance in the preceding three questions. Not only sounds produced are the external stimuli to which one responds, the management of sound production is an equally significant external determinant of annoyance. The theoretical notion of 'perceived control' has made this missing link salient. Until now interest in noise prevention beliefs has been moderate, and even absent in some recent studies of nonsteady states (e.g., TNO-PG/RIVM, 1998). It should be a primary objective of future research into environmental noise annoyance to investigate the interplay of sound level control and perceived control. New and additional (political) measures to mitigate noise annoyance may result from the redirection of attention from sound to noise to annoyance.
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