Emotional Prosody of Task-Irrelevant Speech Interferes With the Retention of Serial Order

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Task-irrelevant speech and other temporally changing sounds are known to interfere with the short-term memorization of ordered verbal materials, as compared to silence or stationary sounds. It has been argued that this disruption of short-term memory (STM) may be due to (a) interference of automatically encoded acoustical fluctuations with the process of serial rehearsal or (b) attentional capture by salient task-irrelevant information. To disentangle the contributions of these 2 processes, the authors investigated whether the disruption of serial recall is due to the semantic or acoustical properties of task-irrelevant speech (Experiment 1). They found that performance was affected by the prosody (emotional intonation), but not by the semantics (word meaning), of irrelevant speech, suggesting that the disruption of serial recall is due to interference of precategorically encoded changing-state sound (with higher fluctuation strength of emotionally intonated speech). The authors further demonstrated a functional distinction between this form of distraction and attentional capture by contrasting the effect of (a) speech prosody and (b) sudden prosody deviations on both serial and nonserial STM tasks (Experiment 2). Although serial recall was again sensitive to the emotional prosody of irrelevant speech, performance on a nonserial missing-item task was unaffected by the presence of neutral or emotionally intonated speech sounds. In contrast, sudden prosody changes tended to impair performance on both tasks, suggesting an independent effect of attentional capture.

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