Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Irrelevant Speech Effects and Sequence Learning

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Irrelevant Speech Effects and Sequence Learning

Article excerpt

The irrelevant speech effect is the finding that performance on serial recall tasks is impaired by the presence of irrelevant background speech. According to the object-oriented episodic record (O-OER) model, this impairment is due to a conflict of order information from two different sources: the seriation of the irrelevant speech and the rehearsal of the order of the to-be-remembered items. We tested the model's prediction that irrelevant speech should impair performance on other tasks that involve seriation. Experiments 1 and 2 verified that both an irrelevant speech effect and a changing state effect would obtain in a between-subjects design in which a standard serial recall measure was used, allowing employment of a between-subjects design in subsequent experiments. Experiment 3 showed that performance on a sequence-learning task was impaired by the presence of irrelevant speech, and Experiment 4 verified that performance is worse when the irrelevant speech changes more (the changing state effect). These findings support the prediction made by the O-OER model that one essential component to the irrelevant speech effect is serial order information.

The irrelevant speech effect is the finding that performance on immediate serial recall tasks is impaired by the presence of background speech, even though the background speech is completely irrelevant to the task. This finding has attracted a lot of attention, since it is a prime example of cross-modal interference: Visual to-beremembered items are interfered with by irrelevant auditory information. Explanations of this apparently simple result remain controversial (see, e.g., Neath, 2000, and subsequent comments by Baddeley, 2000b, and Jones & Tremblay, 2000). The goal of the present work is (1) to extend the range of tasks mat are known to be susceptible to disruption by irrelevant speech and (2) to assess the ability of the three major theories to account for the results.

Empirical Review

In one of the first demonstrations of the irrelevant speech effect, Colle and Welsh (1976) presented eightitem lists of consonants visually. The irrelevant speech, played continuously, was a passage from Franz Kakfa's Ein Hungerkunstler in German, a language that none of the subjects reported understanding. The speech was categorized as irrelevant because the subjects were instructed to ignore it and were assured that there would be no subsequent test on it (as, indeed, there was not). Performance was 12% worse in the irrelevant speech condition than in the quiet control condition. A subsequent study (Colle, 1980; see also Ellermeier & Hellbrück, 1998) showed that the amount of impairment caused by irrelevant speech was independent of the intensity of the irrelevant stimuli, at least over the range from 40 to 76 dB(A). The impairment appears to be the same regardless of whether the irrelevant speech accompanies presentation or follows presentation (Miles, Jones, & Madden, 1991), and the magnitude of the effect does not diminish over repeated trials or sessions (Hellbrück, Kuwano, & Namba, 1996; Tremblay & Jones, 1998).

In general, the phonological or semantic relation between the irrelevant stimuli and the to-be-remembered stimuli is not related to the effect (Jones & Macken, 1995). In particular, there are far more studies demonstrating that phonological overlap between the irrelevant speech and the to-be-remembered item has no additional disruptive effect (Bridges & Jones, 1996; Jones & Macken, 1995; LeCompte & Shaibe, 1997) than there are studies showing such an effect (Salamé & Baddeley, 1982).

One of the hallmarks of the irrelevant speech effect is the changing state effect (Jones, Madden, & Miles, 1992): Irrelevant auditory stimuli that change over time produce more of a decrement than do otherwise comparable stimuli that do not change (see also Beaman & Jones, 1997; Jones, Alford, Macken, Banbury, & Tremblay, 2000). …

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