Disgusting stimuli are thought to be potent distractors, but a new study just published by Parmentier, Fraga, Leiva and Ferré in Psychological Research shows that disgusting words yield the same amount of distraction as neutral words when these words are unexpected auditory distractors in a visual task. A subsequent surprise recognition task revealed that both types of words were equally well recognized. These results were not affected by the participant’s personal sensitivity to disgust.
Parmentier, F. B. R., Fraga, I., Ferré, P., & Leiva, A. (2019, May 4th). Distraction by deviant sounds - Disgusting and neutral words capture attention to the same extent. Psychological Research. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1007/s00426-019-01192-4
Several studies have argued that words evoking negative emotions, such as disgust, grab attention more than neutral words, and leave traces in memory that are more persistent. However, these conclusions are typically based on tasks requiring participants to process the semantic content of these words in a voluntarily manner. We sought to compare the involuntary attention grabbing power of disgusting and neutral words by using them as rare and unexpected auditory distractors in a cross-modal oddball task, and then probing the participants’ memory for these stimuli in a surprise recognition task. Frequentist and Bayesian analyses converged to show that, compared to a standard tone, disgusting and neutral auditory words produced significant but equivalent levels of distraction in a visual categorization task, that they elicited comparable levels of memory discriminability in the incidental recognition task, and that the participants’ individual sensitivity to disgust did not influence the results. Our results suggest that distraction by unexpected words is not modulated by their emotional valence, at least when these words are task-irrelevant and are temporally and perceptually decoupled from the target stimuli.