Theoretical and Applied Aspects of Distraction: An International Symposium

Glen Carrigan, John Marsh Symposium ay UCLan, 30th April 2014

Symposium: Theoretical and Applied Aspects of Distraction

The University of Central Lancashire

Wednesday 30th April, (Adelphi Building Lecture Theatre 2), 9: 30 am – 15:00 pm

Organised by Dr John Marsh and Glen Carrigan, University of Central Lancashire


  • 9:30 am           Overview of the Symposium by John E. Marsh

Session 1 (9:45 am – 10:45 am):Attentional Capture and Cognitive Control

  • 9:45 am        Jessica K. Ljungberg (Umeå University, Sweden) “What’s In a Name? No More than when it’s Mine Own”: Evidence from Auditory Oddball Distraction
    • 10:00 am     Robert F. Potter (Distinguished Visitor, Indiana University, US) Two Really is Better than One: The Voice Change as a Means to Increase Attention to Radio Messages
  • 10:15 am       Robert W. Hughes (Royal Holloway, University of London) Auditory Distraction: A Duplex-Mechanism Account

  • 10:30 am       John E. Marsh (University of Central Lancashire) Cognitive Control of Distraction: Task Difficulty Eliminates Attenuates the Between-Sequence Semantic Similarity Effect
  • 10:45 am         Break/Group Discussion


Session 2 (11:00 am – 12:00 pm): Applied Aspects of Distraction

    • 11:00 am        Faye C. Skelton (University of Central Lancashire) In the Face of Distraction: The Impact of Changing-State Speech on Person Identification
  • 11:15 am         Charlie F. Frowd (University of Winchester) The Impact of Weapons and Unusual Objects on Face Recall and Composite  Construction
  • 11:30 am         Patrik Sörqvist (via Skype; University of Gavle, Sweden) Task Difficulty and Distractibility: Basic and Applied Aspects
  • 11:45 am         François Vachon (Université Laval, Canada) Reverberation and Multiple Voices: Solutions to Reduce the Cognitive Impact of Office Noise
  • 12 pm              Lunch


Session 3 (1:00 pm – 1:45 pm): Distraction, Action Planning, and Specialised Processing

  • 1:00 pm          Paul J. Taylor (University of Central Lancashire) Action Planning Interference of the Visual Processing of Action-Related Stimuli
  • 1.15 pm           Linden J Ball (University of Central Lancashire) When Distraction Helps: Evidence that Concurrent Articulation and Irrelevant Speech Can Facilitate Insight Problem Solving
  • 1.30 pm           Lea Pilgrim (University of Central Lancashire) Hemispheric Specialisation in Semantic Processing: Using Distraction as a Device to Evaluate the Fine-Coarse Model of Cerebral Asymmetry in Conceptual Processing
  • 1.45 pm           Break/Group Discussion


Session 4 (2:00 pm – 3:00 pm): Music as Distraction and Distraction within Special Populations

  • 2:00 pm           Nick R. Perham (Cardiff Metropolitan University) Music as Background Sound
    • 2.15 pm           Rona Linklater (University of Central Lancashire) Music Messaging for the Brain
  • 2:30 pm           Jingqi Yang (University of Central Lancashire) Examining Whether Lonely Individuals are Hypervigilant to Social Threat Using Attention and Memory Tasks
  • 2:45 pm           Tanya N Joseph (University of Central Lancashire) An Investigation of the Vulnerability of Child Cognition to Auditory Distraction


End of Symposium/Break away session


9:45 am

Jessica K. Ljungberg

Umeå University, Sweden

Research of the distractor value of hearing one’s own name has shown that this self-referring stimulus captures attention in an involuntary fashion and creates distraction. The behavioral studies are few and the outcomes are not always clear cut. In this study the distraction by one’s own name compared to a control name was investigated by using a cross-modal oddball task. Thirty-nine participants undertook a computerized categorization task while exposed to, to-be ignored own and matched control names (controlling for familiarity, gender and number of syllables) as the unexpected auditory deviant stimulus (12.5% trials for each name category) and a sine wave tone as a standard stimulus (75% of the trials). Results showed deviant distraction by exposure to both one’s own name and the control name compared to the standard tone but no differences were found between one’s own name and the control name showing that the own name captured attention and distracted the participants no more than a control name. The results elucidate the role of the own name as a potent auditory distractor and possible limitations with its theoretical significance for general theories of attention are discussed.

10:00 am 

Two Really is Better than One: The Voice Change as a Means to Increase Attention to Radio Messages

Robert F. Potter (Distinguished Visitor)

Indiana University, US

In this talk I will briefly present the concept of the orienting response as a mechanism for automatically allocating cognitive resources to novel information in the environment. Then, presenting data collected time-locked to actual radio messages, I will show how changes in announcers not only results in orienting but that the frequent use of multiple voices does not seem to cause the automatic allocation of attention to the messages to habituate.

10:15 am

Auditory Distraction: A Duplex-Mechanism Account 

Robert W. Hughes

Royal Holloway, University of London

A range of studies is briefly reviewed suggesting that auditory distraction comes in two functionally distinct forms. Interference-by-process is produced when the involuntary processing of the sound competes for a similar process applied deliberately to perform a focal task. In contrast, attentional capture is produced when the sound causes a disengagement of attention away from the prevailing task, regardless of the task processes involved. Particular attention is devoted to evidence indicating that auditory attentional capture is controllable via increased top-down task-engagement whereas interference-by-process is not.

10:30 am

Cognitive Control of Distraction: Task Difficulty Eliminates Attenuates the Between-Sequence Semantic Similarity Effect

John E. Marsh

University of Central Lancashire

Two experiments investigated the influence of top-down cognitive control on two effects of task-irrelevant speech on the immediate free recall of visually-presented words: the propensity for spoken distracters semantically related to the target words to be falsely recalled and the disruptive effect of such distracters on correct recall. These effects have previously been considered to be functionally independent. However, Experiment 1 demonstrated that promoting focal task-engagement by reducing the perceptual discriminability of the target words eliminated the disruption by distracters of correct recall and also attenuated their false recall. To investigate whether the benefit of task-engagement was due to output-monitoring processes or constraints on access, a recall test that eliminates the requirement for monitoring was adopted in Experiment 2. Rates of false recall were much greater than in Experiment 1 but the general pattern of results remained the same. Taken together, the results show that one way in which task-engagement reduces semantic distraction is through constraints on access: the promotion of task-engagement at study blocks distracters at encoding thereby preventing them from coming to mind at test.


10:45 – 11:00 am: Group Discussion/Break


Session 2 (11:00 am – 12:00 pm):Applied Aspects of Distraction

11:00 am 

In the Face of Distraction: The Impact of Changing-State Speech on Person Identification

Faye C. Skelton

University of Central Lancashire

Spontaneous subvocal rehearsal facilitates learning of unfamiliar faces: If subvocal vocalisation is prevented–through requiring participants to engage in articulatory suppression during face encoding–then face recognition performance suffers. Articulatory suppression also impairs short-term serial recall of visually presented items as does task-irrelevant sound providing it changes in state. According to the interference-by-process account the involuntary processing of the order of sounds competes for a similar process applied deliberately to perform a focal task (subvocal rehearsal). In this study participants were either presented with quiet, task-irrelevant steady-state speech or task-irrelevant changing-state speech whilst viewing a face. They then completed a distractor task before selecting the target face from a line-up. This was repeated for 26 trials. Changing-state speech impaired identification performance relative to quiet and stead-state speech. It is concluded that changing-state speech impairs subvocal rehearsal of face information that, when unimpeded, can facilitate face recognition.

11:15 am

The Impact of Weapons and Unusual Objects on Face Recall and Composite Construction

Charlie F. Frowd

University of Winchester

Some crimes involve a weapon, the presence of which has been found in some laboratory studies to impede an observer’s ability to recall and/or recognise a target individual. This so-called weapon-focus effect was proposed to be caused by weapons increasing an observer’s anxiety, but later research suggested it may be related to a weapon’s salience or unusualness. We explored whether weapons and unusual objects at encoding interfere with face construction. Participants looked at an unfamiliar target face on its own or when paired with either a weapon (knife) or an unusual object (e.g. feather duster). Twenty-four hours later, participants freely described the face and object (if present) and constructed a single composite of the face using EvoFIT. Further participants who were familiar with the targets attempted to name the composites spontaneously. Naming was fairly good overall (M = ~35%), but did not differ reliably if an object was present or not, or whether constructor-participants were directed to focus mainly on the target, focus mainly on the object, focus equally on face-and-object, or to ignore the object. Likeness ratings suggested that constructors tended to focus on the internal region of the face when instructed to ignore the object, to the detriment of the outer facial region. Also, face recall was inhibited when participants were asked to focus equally on face-and-object, while object recall was hindered when participants were told to ignore the object (if present). The data support the unusualness explanation of the weapon-focus effect. Practical implications are discussed.

11:30 am

Task Difficulty and Distractibility: Basic and Applied Aspects

Patrik Sörqvist (via Skype)

University of Gavle, Sweden


I will talk about three studies of how task difficulty modulates distraction and processing of background sound. In the first study, we examined how visual-verbal working memory load modulates auditory-sensory gating in the brainstem. Greater load is associated with a lower auditory-brainstem response to background sound (i.e., the neural processing of background sound decreases when task difficulty increases). In the second study, we aimed to look at this phenomenon in an applied setting. Participants proofread texts written in either an easy-to-read font (low task difficulty) or a hard-to-read font (high task difficulty). The detrimental effects of background speech on proofreading for semantic/contextual errors was attenuated when the text was hard-to-read. In the third study, we extended these findings from a typical office type of task to a task more typical for school environments. Participants read and tried to remember the contents of texts written in either an easy-to-read or a hard-to-read font. Background speech impaired memory, but only when the text was written in the easy-to-read font, not when it was written in the hard-to-read font. The role of individual differences in working memory capacity is also explored.

11:45 pm

Reverberation and Multiple Voices: Solutions to Reduce the Cognitive Impact of Office Noise

François Vachon

Université Laval, Canada

The 21st century office is open-plan, reducing barriers to extraneous sound. Background speech is consistently rated as the most objectionable noise in the office and is known to significantly disrupt tasks that involve the sequencing of information. Whereas practical recommendations typically focus on masking the irrelevant sound—which can result in an annoying increase in sound intensity—solutions could be based instead on manipulating inherent properties of office noise. There is ample evidence that acoustic variation in background noise is responsible for disruption of serial processing. Hence, any means of attenuating sound variability such as increasing the number of voices in background speech or the level of reverberation should help counter the negative impact of irrelevant sound. Accordingly, the present study sought to test the joint impact of number of voices and reverberation on distracting effects of extraneous sound. A first experiment showed that disruption of a (visually-presented) serial recall task diminished as the number of superimposed voices in to-be-ignored auditory sequences increased from 3 to 15. The second experiment further revealed that adding realistic office reverberation to the irrelevant sound attenuated the distraction still further. In fact, 15 superimposed voices with a 1-s reverberation time led to performance indistinguishable from that in a quiet control condition, demonstrating that office noise disruptive impact can be counteracted by manipulating factors that are inherently part of the sound. These findings suggest, counterintuitively perhaps, that increasing the number of people occupying a shared office and greater room reverberation may ameliorate the damaging effects of background noise on workplace satisfaction and productivity. Based on the present results, two recommendations can be made for office design: 1) offices should be designed in a way that increases the number of simultaneous voices—hence the number of co-workers—in background speech; 2) contrary to current practice, office room reverberation should be increased instead of being cancelled out.


12:00 pm – 1:00 pm: Lunch Break


Session 3 (1:00 pm – 1:45 pm):Distraction, Action Planning, and Specialised Processing

1:00 pm 

Action Planning Interference of the Visual Processing of Action-Related Stimuli

Paul J. Taylor

University of Central Lancashire

The findings are presented of a study that examined the effect of action planning on the subsequent detection of either a size or spatial deviation within a visual detection task. Participants were quicker to respond to a spatial deviant with a push than a grasp. In contrast, the opposite pattern was observed in response to a size deviant. The results are interpreted as evidence for a bias in the attentional system to allow the anticipation of relevant information within the environment and supports the notion of a top down, goal directed attentional system.

1:15 pm

When Distraction Helps: Evidence that Concurrent Articulation and Irrelevant Speech

Can Facilitate Insight Problem Solving

Linden J Ball

University of Central Lancashire

I report an experiment investigating the “special-process” theory of insight problem solving, which claims that insight arises from non-conscious, non-reportable processes that enable problem re-structuring. We predicted that reducing opportunities for speech-based processing during insight problem solving should permit special processes to function more effectively, thereby facilitating insight. We distracted speech-based processing by using either articulatory suppression or irrelevant speech, with findings for these conditions supporting the predicted insight facilitation effect relative to silent working or thinking aloud. The latter condition was included to investigate the currently contested effect of “verbal overshadowing” on insight, whereby thinking aloud is claimed to hinder the operation of special, non-reportable processes. Whilst verbal overshadowing was not evident in final solution rates, there was nevertheless support for verbal overshadowing up to and beyond the mid-point of the available problem solving time. Overall our data support a special-process theory of insight, whilst also pointing to the role of moderator variables (e.g., available time for solution) in determining the presence or absence of effects predicted by the special process account.

1:30 pm

Hemispheric Specialisation in Semantic Processing: Using Distraction as a Device to Evaluate the Fine-Coarse Model of Cerebral Asymmetry in Conceptual Processing 

Lea Pilgrim

University of Central Lancashire

Short-term free recall of semantic-category exemplars is impaired by the semantic properties of background speech. This semantic effect is larger when the sound is presented to the right compared to the left ear (a right-ear disadvantage). In this talk I describe a fine-coarse model of these hemispheric differences in semantic processing and describe how this model can be critically evaluated using distraction as a key analytical device.

1:45 pm – 2:00 pm: Break/Discussion


Session 4 (2:00 pm – 3:00 pm):Music as Distraction and Distraction within Special Populations


2:00 pm

Music as Background Sound 

Nick R. Perham

Cardiff Metropolitan University

The interference-by-process account of auditory distraction has been used to explain the classic irrelevant sound effect and, more recently, semantic auditory distraction. It posits that impairment arises as a result of information in the task and the sound being processed in the same way. Elsewhere in the music and cognition literature, liked music has been argued to have beneficial effects to cognitive performance compared to disliked music. Three studies are reported that test these two explanations and all three support the interference-by-process account.

2:15 pm

Music Messaging for the Brain

Rona Linklater

University of Central Lancashire

The Alzheimer’s Society confirm that the number of people with dementia in the UK is predicted to be in excess of 1m by 2021. Research undertaken indicates that Alzheimer’s patients are able to retain memory of music possibly indicating that the brain networks for music are less affected by the disease than other cognitive functions. An increase in positive behaviour with careers after engagement in singing and a significant reduction in agitation after individual programmes of music intervention has also been identified. However, little integration of music into routine procedures has been evidenced. The initial objectives of my research will be: to compare how the different elements of music are experienced and to analyse the level of music memory. An analysis and evaluation of findings will inform further objectives: to explore which elements of music could support the retention of novel verbal information and to refine strategies for combining music with other modalities, such as gesture, to enhance communication.

2:30 pm

Distractibility and Loneliness: Examining Whether Lonely Individuals are Hypervigilant to Social Threat Using Attention and Memory Task. 

Jingqi Yang

University of Central Lancashire

Loneliness can occur when there is a discrepancy between people’s desired social relationships and their actual social associations (Peplau and Perlman, 1982). Long-term, prolonged loneliness can impair people’s physical and mental health. Caccioppo and Hawkley (2009) argued that lonely people are hypervigilant to social threats and they tend to view their social world threatening and punitive. Hawkley et al (2003) suggested that loneliness is an outcome of faulty social cognition related to negative social information. A few studies have investigated lonely people’s cognitions; however, most studies have been limited to appraisals and perceptions of social events rather than an examination of involuntary cognitive processes. Furthermore, the examination of transient versus chronic loneliness is absent from these studies. The examination of such involuntary cognitive functions and processes forms the basis of my MPhil work, with studies examining attention and memory biases amongst lonely people.

2:45 pm

An Investigation of the Vulnerability of Child Cognition to Auditory Distraction 

Tanya N Joseph

University of Central Lancashire

The aim of the study is to assess the effects of auditory distraction on children’s cognition and provide suggestions to reduce distraction. Previous research indicates that children are particularly susceptible to distraction but the underpinnings have not been adequately explored. The present study will investigate how attentional control and rehearsal skills influence children’s distractibility. Recently, theorists have developed the duplex-mechanism account of auditory distraction. The current study will also consider the applicability of this account in light of a child sample. The sample will include children in the age group of 4-12 years old. Serial recall, missing-item, and probe tasks will be conducted in the presence of auditory distraction (changing-state, steady-state, and deviant sounds) played through headphones. It is expected that changing-state and deviant sounds will have more of a detrimental effect on performance than steady-state sounds. The effects of distraction on serial recall are of particular interest.


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About glencarrigan

Glen Carrigan is a Neuropsychology Postgraduate Researcher and Senior Research Assistant in Clinical Practice at The University of Central Lancashire. Glen is a public speaker, humanist, science presenter, ex-soldier, and social and political activist with an interest in all things related to equality, science, education, and politics.

Posted on April 28, 2014, in Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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