The Automaticity of Semantic Processing Revisited: Auditory Distraction by a Categorical Deviation

Vachon, Francois, Marsh, John Everett orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-9494-1287 and Labonte, Katherine (2019) The Automaticity of Semantic Processing Revisited: Auditory Distraction by a Categorical Deviation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149 (7). pp. 1360-1397. ISSN 0096-3445

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Automatic information processing has been and still is a debated topic. Traditionally, automatic processes are deemed to take place autonomously and independently of top-down cognitive control. For decades, the literature on reading has brought to the fore empirical phenomena such as Stroop and semantic priming effects that provide support for the assumption that semantic information can be accessed automatically. More recently, there has been growing evidence that
semantic processing is in fact susceptible to higher level cognitive influences, suggesting that this form of processing is instead conditionally automatic. The purpose of the present study was to revisit this debate using a novel approach: the automatic access to the meaning of irrelevant auditory stimuli was tested through the assessment of their distractive power. More specifically, we aimed to examine whether a categorical change in the content of to-be-ignored auditory sequences composed of speech items that are personally non-significant to participants (e.g., a digit among letters) can disrupt an unrelated visual focal task. In seven experiments, we assessed this categorical deviation effect and its functional properties. We established that distraction by categorical deviation is non-contingent on the activated task set and appears resistant to topdown control manipulations. By suggesting not only that the semantic content of the irrelevant sound can be extracted preattentively, but also that such semantic activation is ineluctable during auditory distraction, these findings shed new light on the automatic nature of semantic processing.

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