Deviant sounds yield distraction irrespective of the sounds’ informational value

A new study by Parmentier and just accepted for publication by the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance shows that, contrary to previous claims, deviance distraction (the distraction yielded by unexpected changes in a sequence of task-irrelevant sounds) is not conditioned by the warning value of these sounds. Parmentier highlights how such conclusion was based on an analysis of the data that failed to take into account the slowing of responses induced by the witholding of responses on catch trials. These results demonstrate that deviance distraction is not limited to oddball tasks where irrelevant stimuli fulfill the role of warning stimuli and reinforces the oddball task as a valid method to study deviance distraction.

Parmentier, F. B. R (in press). Deviant sounds yield distraction irrespective of the sounds’ informational value. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

Oddball studies show that rare and unexpected changes in an otherwise repetitive or structured sequence of task-irrelevant sounds (deviant sounds among standard sounds) ineluctably break through attentional filters and yield longer response times in an ongoing task. While this deviance distraction effect has generally been thought of as an involuntary and adaptive phenomenon, recent studies questioned this view by reporting that deviance distraction is observed when sounds predict the occurrence of a target stimulus (informative sounds) but that is disappears when sounds do not convey this information (uninformative sounds). Here I challenge this conclusion and suggest that the apparent absence of deviance distraction with uninformative sounds results in fact from two opposite effects:  Deviance distraction when the previous trial involved a target and required responding, and a speeding up of responses by deviant sound following trials involving no target and requiring the withholding of responses.  Data from a new experiment, new analyses of the data from three earlier studies, and the modelling of these data, all converge in suggesting the existence of deviance distraction impervious to the sounds’ informational value. These results undermine the proposition of a late top-down control mechanism gating behavioral distraction as a function of the sounds’ informative value.