Attentional Capture by Taboo Words: A Functional View of Auditory Distraction

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It is well established that task-irrelevant, to-be-ignored speech adversely affects serial short-term memory (STM) for visually presented items compared with a quiet control condition. However, there is an ongoing debate about whether the semantic content of the speech has the capacity to capture attention and to disrupt memory performance. In the present article, we tested whether taboo words are more difficult to ignore than neutral words. Taboo words or neutral words were presented as (a) steady state sequences in which the same distractor word was repeated, (b) changing state sequences in which different distractor words were presented, and (c) auditory deviant sequences in which a single distractor word deviated from a sequence of repeated words. Experiments 1 and 2 showed that taboo words disrupted performance more than neutral words. This taboo effect did not habituate and it did not differ between individuals with high and low working memory capacity. In Experiments 3 and 4, in which only a single deviant taboo word was presented, no taboo effect was obtained. These results do not support the idea that the processing of the auditory distractors’ semantic content is the result of occasional attention switches to the auditory modality. Instead, the overall pattern of results is more in line with a functional view of auditory distraction, according to which the to-be-ignored modality is routinely monitored for potentially important stimuli (e.g., self-relevant or threatening information), the detection of which draws processing resources away from the primary task.

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