Warning – Taboo Words Ahead! Avoiding Attentional Capture by Spoken Taboo Distractors

Rettie, Laura orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-9758-0416, Potter, Robert F., Brewer, Gayle, Degno, Federica, Vachon, Franҫois, Hughes, Robert W. and Marsh, John Everett orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-9494-1287 (2023) Warning – Taboo Words Ahead! Avoiding Attentional Capture by Spoken Taboo Distractors. Journal of Cognitive Psychology . ISSN 2044-5911

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.1080/20445911.2023.2285860


Task-irrelevant sound disrupts serial short-term memory (STM). On the interference-by-process account, order cues arising from the automatic pre-categorical processing of changes in the sound conflicts with serial–order processing used for the memory task. It has been argued that post-categorical auditory distraction effects in serial STM—such as from spoken taboo words—are therefore problematic for this account. However, we test the view that the taboo-distractor effect, like other post-categorical distraction effects, is due to a distinct, attentional diversion, mechanism: We examine whether it is, unlike effects attributable to interference-by-process, amenable to top-down control. In Experiment 1, disruption of serial recall by taboo words was greater than that by neutral words as well as by words independently rated as more valent (but less taboo), suggesting that the taboo-word effect is not simply a valence effect. Neither the effect of taboo nor valence, however, was attenuated under high focal-task encoding load, which is thought to promote top-down control. However, in Experiment 2, foreknowledge of the distractors did eliminate the taboo-distractor effect while having no effect on disruption by neutral words. In conclusion, the taboo-distractor effect results from a controllable attentional-diversion mechanism distinct from that underpinning the effect of any acoustically-changing sound.

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