Selective hearing is a way of describing the tendency of some people to ignore things that they don’t want to hear. It is not a physiological condition, as the individuals are physically hearing the words, but their minds choose not to acknowledge what is being said. In many cases, the conscious mind does not appear to receive the information, so it is different than an active ignoring of speech. Instead, it is a sort of selective inattention that may be done consciously or subconsciously.
Classically, selective hearing is an attribute people associated with men. The standard example would be a woman asking her male partner whether he wants to go to the opera that night, only to have him seemingly ignore her. When she mentions something of interest to him, such as football or beer, however, he immediately responds as though he had been listening all along. Although these sorts of examples may seem facetious, in fact, they are not uncommon in everyday interactions between people of all genders and relationships.
Attention is a complex system that is not particularly well understood, although it is studied at great length. One thing that does appear to be certain is that the degree of attention a person gives is able to shift radically based on circumstances. Certain things appear to command absolute attention, while others seem nearly impossible to focus on. Hearing selectively is simply a manifestation of the mutable nature of attention, and it is rarely indicative of any sort of overt malice or disdain for a subject or person speaking. It has more to do with the way one's mind prioritizes things.
It is not uncommon for parents to believe that their children suffer from some sort of hearing disorder if the level of selective hearing they express is particularly high. Although physiological causes may be responsible, it is more commonly related to an attention disorder. Children are particularly susceptible to not listening to everything that is said, as they are constantly being bombarded by new information to assimilate. In order to cope, they may shut out things their brains decide are unimportant.
This term may also be used to describe an unrelated manner of interaction, in which a person chooses to hear only what he or she wishes to out of a conversation. This is commonly seen in cases where a person asks a question with the goal of achieving a desired end, rather than actually understanding a situation. For example, if Jane asks John to bring some milk by her house, and John refuses, Jane may ask, “Why not?” In this case Jane is asking the question not with the intent of understanding why John doesn’t wish to bring her milk, but rather to pick apart his rationale to try to get him to buy the milk.
As a result, no matter what John responds, Jane will only hear the point she can respond to. If he says, “It will take too long,” she will respond, “It will only take five minutes.” If he responds, “I have too much to do today,” she may respond, “I would do it for you.” In every instance, she is not truly listening to understand what John is saying, but only to gather enough superficial information to refute his point.