When is forewarned forearmed? Predicting auditory distraction in short-term memory

R.W. Hughes, John E Marsh

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Two experiments critically examined a predictive-coding based account of the vulnerability of short-term memory to auditory distraction, particularly the disruptive effect of changing-state sound on verbal serial recall. Experiment 1 showed that providing participants with the opportunity to predict the contents of an imminent spoken distractor sentence via a forewarning reduced its particularly disruptive effect but only to the same level of disruption as that produced by ‘simpler’ changing-state sequences (a sequence of letter-names). Moreover, a post-categorically unpredictable changing-state sequence (e.g., “F, B, H, E …”) was no more disruptive than a post-categorically predictable sequence (“A, B, C, D …”). Experiment 2 showed that a sentence distractor was disruptive regardless of whether participants reported adopting a serial rehearsal strategy to perform the focal task (in this case, a missing-item task) whereas, critically, the disruptive effect of simpler changing-state sequences was only found in participants who reported using a serial rehearsal strategy. Moreover, when serial rehearsal was not used to perform the focal task, the disruptive effect of sentences was completely abolished by a forewarning. These results indicate that predictability plays no role in the classical changing-state irrelevant sound effect and that foreknowledge selectively attenuates a functionally distinct stimulus-specific attentional-diversion effect. As such, the results are at odds with a unitary, attentional, account of auditory distraction in short-term memory and instead strongly support a duplex-mechanism account.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)427–442
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Issue number3
Early online date10 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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