Cognitive control of auditory distraction: Impact of task difficulty, foreknowledge, and working memory capacity supports duplex-mechanism account

Robert W. Hughes, Mark J. Hurlstone, John E. Marsh, François Vachon, Dylan M. Jones

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The influence of top-down cognitive control on two putatively distinct forms of distraction was investigated. Attentional capture by a task-irrelevant auditory deviation (e.g., a female-spoken token following a sequence of male-spoken tokens)—as indexed by its disruption of a visually-presented recall task—was abolished when focal-task engagement was promoted either by increasing the difficulty of encoding the visual to-be-remembered stimuli (by reducing their perceptual discriminability; Experiments 1 and 2) or by providing foreknowledge of an imminent deviation (Experiment 2). In contrast, distraction from continuously changing auditory stimuli (‘changing-state effect’) was not modulated by task-difficulty or foreknowledge (Experiment 3). We also confirmed that individual differences in working memory capacity—typically associated with maintaining task-engagement in the face of distraction—predict the magnitude of the deviation effect, but not the changing-state effect. This convergence of experimental and psychometric data strongly supports a duplex-mechanism account of auditory distraction: Auditory attentional capture (deviation effect) is open to top-down cognitive control whereas auditory distraction caused by direct conflict between the sound and focal-task processing (changing-state effect) is relatively immune to such control.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)539-553
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2013


  • Cognitive Control; Auditory Distraction; Attentional Capture; Interference-by-Process; Working Memory Capacity

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