School of Psychology News & events

Research Summary

Jones, DM, Beaman, S (2014 - 2017) About distraction: Cognitive control processes in the service of distraction resistance. ESRC. £451,571.

Whether in the form of music, environmental sounds or human speech, auditory distraction accompanies substantial parts of our everyday activities, including learning and remembering. Laboratory and field studies have shown that this makes a material difference to performance. We also know that this occurs even when the sound is not loud - effects just above the threshold of audibility may be just as disruptive as loud sound. In particular, a broad spectrum of memory processes is disrupted by the presence of irrelevant sound. However, nearly all previous research has worked on the assumption that the individual is a passive agent in these circumstances and has no control over how or if the sound impacts upon performance. Only recently has the issue of whether people can and do spontaneously counteract the negative effects of auditory distraction arisen. Do people modify their behaviour under conditions of auditory distraction to attain memory performance equivalent to performance in the absence of distraction, or does the presence of distraction also interfere with such strategies? The present project aims at answering this question.

Decades of research in the area of metamemory has revealed a wealth of strategies people can deploy to control their memory performance. Most obviously, people can decide for how long they wish to study to-be-remembered material, with longer study times leading to better memory performance. Other widely investigated learning strategies pertain to spacing (vs. massing) of study episodes and deep semantic elaboration of the study material. Strategies to enhance the quality of memory output can also be employed at retrieval, for example withholding information that may be inaccurate, and controlling the length of a memory search.

All of these strategies could, in principle, be deployed in the presence of auditory distraction to mitigate its disruptive effects. However, whenever people are free to control their encoding and retrieval operations, they could also use this freedom maladaptively. For example, when auditory distraction is present people could extend their study times to compensate for the disruptive effect of distraction or they could shorten their study times, reducing memory performance even further. It remains to be established whether the effective deployment of strategies used to study and retrieve information from memory serves to compensate for the negative effects of auditory distraction or whether it is itself impaired by auditory distraction, leading to an even more pronounced memory impairment.

The results of the research are important for our understanding of people's functioning in the presence of auditory distraction and, as such, have important consequences for our understanding of the processes contributing to performance in settings as diverse as classrooms, offices, call centres, or, more generally, any working environment, including safetycritical environments. Importantly, the results of this project will also contribute to our general understanding of the governance of mental operations. The project will provide us with information on the extent to which people are capable and willing to modify learning and retrieval strategies when performance is under threat from sources of potential distraction.