Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Coherence of the Irrelevant-Sound Effect: Individual Profiles of Short-Term Memory and Susceptibility to Task-Irrelevant Materials

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Coherence of the Irrelevant-Sound Effect: Individual Profiles of Short-Term Memory and Susceptibility to Task-Irrelevant Materials

Article excerpt

We examined individual and developmental differences in the disruptive effects of irrelevant sounds on serial recall of printed lists. In Experiment 1, we examined adults (N = 205) receiving eight-item lists to be recalled. Although their susceptibility to disruption of recall by irrelevant sounds was only slightly related to memory span, regression analyses documented highly reliable individual differences in this susceptibility across speech and tone distractors, even with variance from span level removed. In Experiment 2, we examined adults (n = 64) and 8-year-old children (n = 63) receiving lists of a length equal to a predetermined span and one item shorter (span - 1). We again found significant relationships between measures of span and susceptibility to irrelevant sounds, although in only two of the measures. We conclude that some of the cognitive processes helpful in performing a span task may not be beneficial in the presence of irrelevant sounds.

The disruptive effects of irrelevant sounds on immediate serial recall are of considerable interest. This disruption is typically referred to as the irrelevant-speech effect (Colle & Welsh, 1976; Salamé & Baddeley, 1982) but also the irrelevant-sound effect (ISE; Jones & Macken, 1993), given that it can occur with nonspeech sounds. Investigators have noted theoretical implications of this task for understanding memory, attention, and perception (for a recent review, see Neath, 2000, and commentaries by Baddeley, 2000, and Jones & Tremblay, 2000). Fundamentally, the ISE reflects an important limitation in humans' ability to determine which stimuli will enter into the mnemonic processing needed for short-term recall. To the extent that the ISE affects processes within short-term recall that are also used more widely in cognitive tasks, it is of broad significance. Yet important questions remain.

A key issue we will address is whether an individual's degree of susceptibility to the ISE is materials specific or general. Jones and Macken (1993) found that either speech or tones could disrupt serial recall, as long as the auditory stimuli kept changing perceptibly (e.g., the use of multiple syllables or tone pitches, as opposed to a single repeating stimulus). According to their theoretical account (developed by Jones, 1993), the disruption occurs for the same reason for irrelevant speech sounds or tones: because the sounds corrupt the formation of a short-term episodic record.

We do not know of a theory asserting that speech and tone interference do not share a common process. However, a theory of Neath (2000) asserts that speech interference occurs primarily because features from speech are adopted into the phonological memory record of the printed items to be recalled. To account for irrelevant-tone effects, an additional assumption was that changes in irrelevant sounds can cause distraction (cf. Cowan, 1995).

In light of Neath's (2000) approach, speech-based and tone-based ISEs theoretically could occur for largely different reasons (speech effects, because of feature adoption and tone effects, because of distraction). Different sets of individuals might be more susceptible to speech interference than to tone interference, and the correlation between them would be low. In contrast, a strong correlation between speech-based and tone-based ISEs, indicating that some individuals are more susceptible to both kinds of interference, would help to constrain Neath's model by suggesting that the same mechanism should be used to account for much of the variance in both types of ISE (as posited also by Jones, 1993). We address this question with a large sample of adults and children, using regression analyses.

A second question we will address (in addition to the materials-specific versus general basis of disruption by irrelevant sounds) concerns the role of attentional distraction. If distraction is a component of the ISE (as suggested by Cowan, 1995; see also Buchner, Rothermund, Wentura, & Mehl, 2004), one would expect that individuals with better attention-related skills would be better able to avoid distraction. …

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