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J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2012 Jun;38(3):664-74. doi: 10.1037/a0025856. Epub 2011 Oct 24.

Distraction and facilitation--two faces of the same coin?

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  • 1Institute of Psychology, University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany.


Unexpected and task-irrelevant sounds can capture our attention and may cause distraction effects reflected by impaired performance in a primary task unrelated to the perturbing sound. The present auditory-visual oddball study examines the effect of the informational content of a sound on the performance in a visual discrimination task. The informational content was modulated by varying the sound-target interval and the probability of target occurrence. Effects of informational content were examined with two types of distractors: a burst of white noise (deviant) and environmental sounds (novel). Behavioral results reveal the following. (1) Novel and deviant sounds do not necessarily cause behavioral distraction effects when they are uninformative with respect to both time and probability of occurrence of a visual target. (2) Novel, but not deviant, sounds cause an unspecific bias toward facilitation. (3) The informational content of task-irrelevant sounds speeds reaction times, indicating the use of information not directly related to the task for enhancing performance. (4) It is suggested that performance in deviant and novel trials is the sum of the costs of attentional orienting and benefits of information as well as benefits of unspecific activation for novels.

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