Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

New Considerations for the Cognitive Locus of Impairment in the Irrelevant-Sound Effect

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

New Considerations for the Cognitive Locus of Impairment in the Irrelevant-Sound Effect

Article excerpt

Published online: 28 February 2012

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract The finding that serial recall performance for visually presented items is impaired by concurrently presented taskirrelevant speech or sounds is referred to as the irrelevantspeech/- sound effect (ISE). Substantial evidence has indicated that the impairment of serial rehearsal can result in an ISE, and this may be explained by several models. The present series of experiments has demonstrated an ISE in surprise nonserial recognition tasks in which participants were unaware of the need to maintain a large number of visual items for a later memory test, suggesting that neither the rehearsal nor maintenance of order information is necessary for observing the ISE. This effect was observed for both steady-state and changingstate irrelevant sounds, suggesting that the present results do not derive from a confusion of order information, but instead provide evidence that identity representations can also be impaired by irrelevant sound.

Keywords Irrelevant-sound effect . Recall . Recognition . Memory


We might think that we can choose to ignore material that we know to be irrelevant. However, auditory material that is known to be irrelevant has consistently been shown to reduce memory performance for visually presented items, even if the auditory material has no meaningful semantic content. This effect is known as the irrelevant-speech effect, or more recently, the irrelevant-sound effect (ISE; Colle & Welsh, 1976; Jones & Macken, 1993).

The prototypical ISE study requires participants to attend to short (e.g., 8-12 item) lists of visually presented items (typically digits or letters) presented under conditions of silence or with concurrent irrelevant speech or sounds, and then to recall the visual items immediately, in the correct order, under conditions of silence. Colle andWelsh (1976) were the first to demonstrate that concurrent presentation of irrelevant (to-be-ignored) speech impairs immediate serial recall of visually presented verbal material. In their study, participants were presented with serial lists of eight random visual consonants. Irrelevant speech was spoken in German-a language unfamiliar to all participants in the study. The participants showed lower serial recall scores for consonants presented at the same time as irrelevant speech, as compared to serial recall scores for consonants presented during silence. Since that first demonstration, the ISE has been observed with various to-be-remembered visual items, such as consonants, digits, or words (e.g., Beaman & Jones, 1997; LeCompte, 1994), and with a variety of irrelevant changingstate sounds, such as auditory tones that vary unpredictably in pitch or rhythm (Jones & Macken, 1993).

Several theoretical models have been applied to explain the ISE. Some of these models-for example, the object-oriented episodic record model (O-OER; Jones, 1993) and the primacy model of Page and Norris (1998)-suggest that disruptions of serial order information underlie the ISE. Other models, which focus more on phonological interference (e.g., the feature model of Neath, 1999) or on the attentional disruption of identity codes (e.g., the embedded-process model of Cowan, 1995, 1999, or the model of Broadbent, 1984), propose no role for serial rehearsal and the impairment of order information. A third category of models, such as the more recent perceptual-gestural account of Jones and colleagues (e.g., Jones, Hughes, & Macken, 2006; Jones,Macken, & Nicholls, 2004) and the duplex-mechanism model (e.g., Hughes, Vachon, & Jones, 2005), conceptualise serial order impairment as one of two possible processes with which irrelevant auditory information can interfere (i.e., disruption can occur during the process of organising incoming perceptual stimuli or during the planning of the output).

An ISE without serial recall?

The vast majority of experiments examining the ISE have utilised serial recall tasks with short sets of known items (e. …

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