Postcategorical auditory distraction in short-term memory: Insights from increased task load and task type

J.E. Marsh, Jingqi Yang, Pamela Qualter, Richardson, Cassandra, Nick Perham, Francois Vachon, R.W. *Hughes

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Task-irrelevant speech impairs short-term serial recall appreciably. On the interference-by-process account, the processing of physical (i.e., precategorical) changes in speech yields order cues that conflict with the serial-ordering process deployed to perform the serial recall task. In this view, the postcategorical properties (e.g., phonology, meaning) of speech play no role. The present study reassessed the implications of recent demonstrations of auditory postcategorical distraction in serial recall that have been taken as support for an alternative, attentional-diversion, account of the irrelevant speech effect. Focusing on the disruptive effect of emotionally valent compared with neutral words on serial recall, we show that the distracter-valence effect is eliminated under conditions—high task-encoding load—thought to shield against attentional diversion whereas the general effect of speech (neutral words compared with quiet) remains unaffected (Experiment 1). Furthermore, the distracter-valence effect generalizes to a task that does not require the processing of serial order—the missing-item task—whereas the effect of speech per se is attenuated in this task (Experiment 2). We conclude that postcategorical auditory distraction phenomena in serial short-term memory (STM) are incidental: they are observable in such a setting but, unlike the acoustically driven irrelevant speech effect, are not integral to it. As such, the findings support a duplex-mechanism account over a unitary view of auditory distraction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)882-897
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Issue number6
Early online date1 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018

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