Why people only hear what they want to hear


Kevin Mangelschots

Every single one of us knows someone who only perceives what they want to, regardless if it’s the truth or not.

Those kinds of people can’t be talked to, or reasoned with. That’s most probably because they have preexisting beliefs that they feel need to be reconfirmed instead of questioned. Additionally, this typically means disregarding all information that indicates otherwise.

But why do people only hear what they want to hear instead of learning new skills and in addition to acquiring novel knowledge that improves their lives? Let me explain.

Why do people only hear what they want to hear in life?

Image of a cat lying down while covering its ears with its paws.

Let me start by saying that I think that people are inclined to know and learn the truth, yet often refrain from acknowledging it or actively pursuing it since it makes them uncomfortable and stressed.

We know that we experience negative feelings more strongly than positive ones. Thus, much of our behavior is regulated to prevent suffering, rather than chasing positive events.

Why do people hear only what they want to hear? These are the potential causes:

  • It’s easier

    People regularly take the easier path in life. Hearing what you want to hear is simpler for a multitude of reasons.

    It’s smoother because, from an evolutionary perspective, we want to expend as little energy as possible to conserve our vitality for when it truly matters. This means that when our lives depend on it for survival.

    On the other hand, it’s easier when we consider that we are inherently lazy. It’s hard putting in the effort and energy to search out the truth, and to consider data that might go against our established personal beliefs.

  • The truth is uncomfortable

    The truth is typically uncomfortable, which is why we regularly refrain from pursuing it, despite having a penchant for the truth.

    It’s painful to admit that life is unfair. That we are advantaged in some ways compared to others, but at a disadvantage in some areas as well.

    Some get born into wealth, while others are delivered into poverty. Some are born so pretty that it opens every door for free opportunities, while others have to work much harder to get chances.

  • Confirmation bias

    Illustration depicting what confirmation bias is.

    Confirmation bias refers to the fact that we’re inclined to search out information that confirms our preexisting notions, all the while disregarding all the information that goes against, or questions what we currently believe in.

    This is a huge hurdle in the quest towards searching out the truth. If our goal is to affirm what we already believe to be true, then it makes sense that we only hear what we want to hear. That doesn’t make it right or beneficial though.

  • Categorization of experiences

    Humans make sense of the world by categorizing our experiences. By placing everything neatly into boxes, so to speak.

    This gives us many advantages such as allowing us to make sense of the world, and to quickly understand something by comparing it to a similar situation and experience.

    Yet, our disposition to categorize occurrences means that we will do so based on our past experiences and bygone classifications. If our previous events happen to be incorrectly evaluated, then our new experiences will also be attributed wrongly.

    It’s also a subjective matter since it relies on our emotions and feelings to categorize things. Thus, we hear what we want to hear to put things into order.

  • People are subjective

    Ultimately, we are all subjective. Even the most rational, objective thinkers are. Our emotions and feelings influence our decisions, but also our actions.

    Logic would say that we search for information that is true since we learn more from the truth, which will allow us to flourish in the future. But this is not what always happens in reality. We often search out what we already believe to be true due to our feelings, emotions, thinking errors, and imperfections.

  • Selective hearing

    Image of a man focusing on one thing while the rest of his colleagues are talking in a meeting.

    What is selective hearing?

    Selective hearing is also commonly called selective auditory attention, or selective attention.

    It allows us to focus our attention on a specific sound or one particular person’s words by ignoring or ‘tuning out’ other speakers, sounds, or words coming our way.

    Thus, it works by filtering out sounds, words, and people we deem unimportant in that particular instance so that we’re free to focus our attention on one specific thing.

    Thus, selective hearing is essential to filter out ‘useless’ or ‘unimportant’ information to lighten the load being placed on our brains. This consequently helps to prevent overloading our psyche.

    This grants us the ability to pay attention to a single individual in a loud and noisy environment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How do you tell people things they don’t want to hear?

  • Set the right mood

    Setting the right tone for the conversation is very important for creating the right environment to take in new information.

    Just imagine trying to get someone to change their mind when the conversation starts hostile and aggressive, and both parties end up cussing each other out. This will make us far too defensive to be able to learn new things because our minds are closed off by all this negativity.

    But when you set the right mood from the very start by being respectful, validating the other person’s feelings and emotions, and actively listening to each other, then you’ve got a chance to respectfully disagree with them. This can make all the difference towards accepting new information, or immediately disregarding it.

  • Understand their mindset

    You can’t understand where they’re coming from, and how to properly educate others when you can’t even understand their mindset, and how they think.

    Everyone is different. Thus, logically, everyone needs a slightly different approach to reap the best results. Someone who has suffered tragedy after tragedy might be very closed off and biased, which means you have to alter your approach to get them to hear what you’re saying.

    Even more, you can learn something from how, and what they’re thinking as well. Nobody knows it all. And this means that we will have to continuously be learning as well.

  • Validate their experiences and feelings

    Whether you agree with their opinion or not is not what matters most. What’s most essential is that you don’t simply disregard their truth and that you validate and respect what they’re feeling and experiencing.

    In the end, everyone wants to be respected, as this goes a long way toward a civilized, cooperative, and peaceful conversation. It’s also a requirement before even attempting to change someone else’s beliefs.

  • Communicate your perspective

    Once you’ve validated their experiences, they’re most likely to hear what they might not necessarily want to hear.

    Communicate your perspective straightforwardly, yet respectfully and kindly. Don’t use the truth in an attempt to intentionally hurt someone else. Only be as blunt as you have to be to get your point across. The least amount of force as necessary is the best path to take.

    If someone is truly delusional, then you will probably have to be more direct than you normally would.

  • Acknowledge that everyone has the right to their perspective

    Once you’ve shared your version of the truth, you need to acknowledge that everyone has the right to their opinion. When they don’t want to believe what you’re saying, then the only thing we can realistically do is accept that we have a different opinion from one another.

    This isn’t necessarily bad, because who’s to say that we’re right? It’s also possible that we’re wrong, even when we think we’re not. It would also make for an incredibly boring and stagnant world if everyone were to think the same.

    Thus, growth lies in different ideas and opinions. We require different points of view to progress as a society.

Is it better to tell people what they want to hear?

A person holding a question mark in front of their face.

It depends on the personality of that person. Generally, people learn more if they know and internalize the truth instead of living in a fairy tale and believing in a lie.

But when people truly don’t want to listen, then it’s a waste of time and effort to explain to them the truth. In that case, it might be beneficial to just tell them what they want to hear to be done with it and to move forward with your life.

As a general rule, if I know them personally and care for them, I will tell them the truth. I believe they will gain more from that, no matter how painful it might be, than telling sweet little lies in their face that I know will come back to haunt them somewhere in the future.

Also, I will attempt to tell the truth if I know that the person is humble, in search of the truth, and is willing to admit that they can be wrong. These are all requirements for a new, better, and more realistic perspective on the world.

How do you communicate with someone who won’t listen?

Image of a woman whispering to another man about an oblivious young man in front wearing headphones.

You can’t communicate with someone who won’t listen.

So when someone is, and remains unwilling to listen even after your best attempts to set the right tone and mood for a conversation, it’s best not to talk with them at all.

These are some things you can try to get people to listen:

  1. Be respectful

    It all starts with respect. When we aren’t courteous to others by listening and showing understanding of each other’s point of view, then we can’t have a civilized conversation.

    It’s required to create the right environment for an argument between two parties. When there’s no respect, then chances are large that others won’t be open to hearing the information we’re about to say, no matter how valuable it might be.

  2. Show empathy

    Showing empathy implies that you try to understand where they’re coming from, and validate their perspective about the subject at hand.

    In the end, we’re all humans. This means we have our personal experiences, emotions, and thus, different perspectives. Even when disagreeing with one another, we must continue to show sympathy for each other’s life story.

  3. Employ active listening

    Image of a man holding his hand near his ear and listening carefully, isolated on a gray wall background.

    Practicing active listening is related to showing courtesy. Ultimately, we’re trying to learn new things and teach others new stuff as well. We can’t do that when we don’t listen to each other.

    Employing active listening skills means truly listening, making eye contact, and taking in the data instead of looking for your chance to speak and take the spotlight. Remember that we learn most when we listen instead of when we’re talking.

  4. Show interest

    Showing interest shows our willingness to learn. Others will feed on that eagerness to learn by teaching you new things that you didn’t know yet.

    We all know that conversing with someone disinterested is not an enjoyable experience. The talk will feel flat, and we won’t feel inclined to listen or to teach them new things.

  5. Don’t patronize

    Nobody likes it when someone talks to them in a patronizing way. When someone communicates with a sense of superiority, it makes them seem arrogant and stuck up.

    In the end, no matter how smart you are, there are always individuals out there who are way smarter, and better than us. That’s why we need to be, and remain humble enough, so we can keep an open mind that’s primed to learn new things.

  6. Ask questions

    Illustration of speech bubbles and question marks beneath them.

    Asking questions proves you’re interested, and that you’re engaged in the conversation. It’s also a great way to learn new things and gain a deeper understanding of the subject at hand.

    When someone else tells you something, they’ve already gone over it at least a couple of times in their mind. This means that their understanding of their story is much superior to ours. That’s why we will need to ask questions to understand their story fully.

  7. Let them talk

    Letting others talk shows your willingness to learn from them, and that you’re trying to understand where they’re coming from.

    Letting them talk is about politeness. It’s extremely rude to interrupt others when they’re speaking. Yet, most of us know the feeling all too well since it’s such a common occurrence. Personally, it makes me feel disrespected, and like what I’m saying is not important.

  8. Create a relationship with them

    Creating a relationship with them is, once again, related to deference. It’s about creating an environment that allows both parties to learn new things.

    It’s hard to engage in a meaningful conversation with those we don’t like. At our core, we’re subjective beings who are exposed to and influenced by our emotions. Thus, it’s only logical that we prefer talking to and learning from people we respect and enjoy.

  9. Take responsibility

    Image of a finger pointing at a single human signifying his personal responsibility.

    Take responsibility for your actions and words. You can’t just do and say as you please as an adult. You need to take accountability for the consequences of your behavior.

    When you say something incorrect or disrespectful, apologize. But when you speak the truth, and they don’t like it, then you shouldn’t apologize if you did so to get closer to the truth, and to help another person.

  10. Reflect on your actions

    Reflecting on your actions is something that you should continue to do from time to time.

    This can give you new insights regarding your communication style, how much you know, and more importantly, how much you don’t know. It can teach you about your shortcomings, mistakes, and failures so that you can address them. This will make you do better in the future.

  11. Highlight your message

    Highlight that it’s about the message, and not about trying to discredit them. It’s about finding out the truth, not about judging or berating each other’s ‘ridiculous’ claims.

    When we try to argue with facts, empirical evidence, and rational thoughts, we can best remain objective rather than being ruled by our feelings.

  12. Address the issue

    Address the issue directly instead of dancing around the concern. Telling them what you’re trying to accomplish can help them see that they’re not being open to learning new stuff.

    However, this can also be taken as a personal attack. And when that happens, it’s probable that they go on the defensive and close off their mind to what you’re saying even more as a defense mechanism to protect themselves.

  13. Explain where you’re coming from

    Just because you know what you’re talking about, and how you got to that conclusion, doesn’t mean that someone else does.

    That’s why you need to properly explain how you reached that determination. This means going into detail about why you got that perspective, and why you believe that to be the truth.

  14. Adjust your communication style to the receiver

    Each person has their personality, and thus their ideas, thoughts, and preferred communication style. Logically, this means we can deliver our message best by adjusting our communication style to the preferred style of the receiver.

    It’s not required, but when you care about getting your message across, then it only makes sense to swallow your pride and ego to align your manner of communication to that of the person you’re interacting with.

    Are they straight to the point without beating around the bush? Then you can probably do so as well. Are they anxious and very careful not to say anything wrong? Then you will probably have to communicate more softly and less directly as well.

  15. Educate yourself on their learning style

    Educating yourself on their learning style means you’ll be able to deliver the information much more effectively than if you never changed strategies.

    If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will start treating all your problems like a nail. But having multiple tools at your disposal means you can start treating each issue differently, and more efficiently.

Illustration of a man scratching their head while holding a yellow question mark.

Someone who only hears what they want to hear because of their personal preference is what we call an inconsiderate, or ignorant person.

The reason is that they choose to only take in the information that suits them while disregarding all the data that says otherwise.

Another synonym for people who subconsciously only hear what they want to hear is selective hearing or pareidolia.

Selective hearing and pareidolia are done unconsciously and unintentionally. It is performed automatically by the brain without conscious intervention.

What causes selective hearing?

Selective hearing is caused by our brain prioritizing certain sounds that it deems to be the most important in that particular situation.

This is especially essential when we’re bombarded with a large variety of different sounds, words, and speakers to focus on what’s critical in that instance.

This means that selective auditory attention is not an issue, but rather an adaptive strategy of our mind to survive.

Is selective hearing a disorder or a mental illness?

No, selective hearing is not a disorder, since it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon.

It aids us to focus and make sense of the world by filtering out information that our brain and auditory system view as insignificant in that specific instance.

Thus, it should not be considered a mental illness.

Is it normal to have selective hearing?

Image of the sentence, 'am I normal' written on a white piece of paper on a blue background.

Yes, it’s considered normal to have selective hearing.

It’s a natural occurrence that our mind and auditive system participate in to pay attention to the most essential things and to prevent our brain from becoming overwhelmed with various stimuli.

Is selective hearing rare?

Selective hearing is not rare, since it’s a natural occurrence.

Nearly everyone unconsciously and involuntarily employs selective auditory attention to focus.

Why is selective listening so common?

Selective listening is so common since there are many inputs competing for your attention at the same time.

These inputs aren’t just spoken words, but also signs in addition to sounds as well.

Another reason why it’s so common is because it’s a natural cognitive process that the brain engages in to manage and filter all those signals in order of importance.

What is an example of selective hearing?

An example of selective hearing in action at home is when you’re talking to one specific person at a family gathering.

Chances are large that you hear some background noise because the other people are talking as well. Yet, you don’t truly hear what they’re saying since your brain is filtering out that information.

This is your auditory system and brain prioritizing what that one specific person you’re having a conversation with is saying rather than what the rest of the family is saying.

Is selective listening good or bad?

Illustration of a green thumbs up emoji on the left and a red thumbs down emoji on the right.

Selective hearing is good in some situations, but bad in other instances.

It’s good since it allows us to filter out ‘useless’ and ‘unimportant’ auditory input to focus on one particular person, word, or sound.

Yet, it’s possible that this involuntary and unconscious filtering of auditory information means we miss out on essential data that we should know and could’ve heard if not for the filtering. That’s why we should make it a point to listen to our surroundings to get a clear picture of the whole situation.

Final note

Image of the word, “conclusions” written on a black backboard with white chalk.

Some people only hear what they want to hear since it suits their goals.

However, sometimes it’s unintentional and nonvoluntary due to selective hearing or pareidolia. In these instances, it’s because of a naturally occurring process from the brain. And there’s no fix for that, nor should we want to, since it has its perks.

But for those that do so intentionally since it suits their ends, there are some things we can do. Remaining open-minded and humble enough to learn new things is one of the most important aspects.

It’s typically not better to tell a person what they want to hear, since they won’t learn anything new or beneficial from that action.

Nevertheless, it’s next to impossible to communicate with someone who won’t listen. Your only chance is to create a positive environment that might make them open to hearing those very things they don’t want to, but don’t bet on it.