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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2013 Feb;142(1):119-30. doi: 10.1037/a0028428. Epub 2012 May 21.

The crosstalk hypothesis: why language interferes with driving.

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  • 1Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0515, USA.


Performing two cognitive tasks at the same time can degrade performance for either domain-general reasons (e.g., both tasks require attention) or domain-specific reasons (e.g., both tasks require visual working memory). We tested predictions of these two accounts of interference on the task of driving while using language, a naturally occurring dual task. Using language and driving a vehicle use different perceptual and motor skills. As a consequence, a domain-general explanation for interference in this dual task appears most plausible. However, recent evidence from the language processing literature suggests that when people use language with motor content (e.g., language about actions) or visual content (e.g., language about visible objects and events), they engage their motor and perceptual systems in ways specifically reflecting the actions and percepts that the language is about. This raises the possibility that language might interfere with driving for domain-specific reasons when the language has visual or motor content. To test this, we had participants drive a simulated vehicle while simultaneously answering true-false statements that had motor, visual, or abstract content. A domain-general explanation for interference would predict greater distraction in each of these three conditions compared with control, while a domain-specific explanation would predict greater interference in the motor and visual conditions. Both of these predictions were borne out but on different measures of distraction, suggesting that language-driven distraction during driving and dual tasks involving language in general may be the result not only of domain-general causes but also specific interference caused by linguistic content.

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