Psychometric Functions of Dual-Task Paradigms for Measuring Listening Effort

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The purpose of the study was to characterize the psychometric functions that describe task performance in dual-task listening effort measures as a function of signal to noise ratio (SNR).


Younger adults with normal hearing (YNH, n = 24; experiment 1) and older adults with hearing impairment (n = 24; experiment 2) were recruited. Dual-task paradigms wherein the participants performed a primary speech recognition task simultaneously with a secondary task were conducted at a wide range of SNRs. Two different secondary tasks were used: an easy task (i.e., a simple visual reaction-time task) and a hard task (i.e., the incongruent Stroop test). The reaction time (RT) quantified the performance of the secondary task.


For both participant groups and for both easy and hard secondary tasks, the curves that described the RT as a function of SNR were peak shaped. The RT increased as SNR changed from favorable to intermediate SNRs, and then decreased as SNRs moved from intermediate to unfavorable SNRs. The RT reached its peak (longest time) at the SNRs at which the participants could understand 30 to 50% of the speech. In experiments 1 and 2, the dual-task trials that had the same SNR were conducted in one block. To determine if the peak shape of the RT curves was specific to the blocked SNR presentation order used in these experiments, YNH participants were recruited (n = 25; experiment 3) and dual-task measures, wherein the SNR was varied from trial to trial (i.e., nonblocked), were conducted. The results indicated that, similar to the first two experiments, the RT curves had a peak shape.


Secondary task performance was poorer at the intermediate SNRs than at the favorable and unfavorable SNRs. This pattern was observed for both YNH and older adults with hearing impairment participants and was not affected by either task type (easy or hard secondary task) or SNR presentation order (blocked or nonblocked). The shorter RT at the unfavorable SNRs (speech intelligibility < 30%) possibly reflects that the participants experienced cognitive overload and/or disengaged themselves from the listening task. The implication of using the dual-task paradigm as a listening effort measure is discussed.

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