When aging does not increase distraction

A new study by Leiva, Andrés and Parmentier in press in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance reveals that old age is not necessarily accompanied by an increase in distractibility by unexpected stimuli.

Response accuracy and response times of young and older adults in auditory (top panels) and visual (bottom panels) duration discrimination tasks. Standard stimuli were tones of a fixed frequency in the auditory task and triangles presented at the center of the screen in the visual task. Deviant stimuli corresponded to sounds of a slightly higher or lower pitch in the auditory task, and of small spatial shift of the triangle in the visual task. These changes were irrelevant to the participants' task, yet they reduced response accuracy and lengthened response times. Importantly, this deviance distraction effect was of the same amplitude for young and older adults. 

Using a simple duration discrimination task in which 42 young and 42 older adults categorized visual or auditory stimuli as short or long, the study shows that unexpected changes in a task-irrelevant aspect of these stimuli distracted both groups of participants equally. This contrasts with prior findings using cross-modal tasks (auditory distractor and visual target stimuli) in which older adults exhibited a significant increase in distraction compared to young adults.

The absence of age-related effect on distraction in purely auditory and visual tasks was demonstrated thanks to high statistical power and Bayes factor analyses. Overall, these results demonstrate that aging is not irrevocably accompanied by an increase in distracibility when relevant and irrelevant stimuli share the same sensory modality.

Reference: Leiva, A., Andrés, P., & Parmentier, F. B. R. (in press). When aging does not increase distraction: Evidence from pure auditory and visual oddball tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

Abstract: Past research indicates that age increases deviance distraction in cross-modal oddball tasks but results are few and less conclusive in purely auditory oddball tasks, with three studies reporting no age-related increase in deviance distraction against one that did (d = 1.04). Our study aimed to (1) examine the effect of age on deviance distraction using the largest sample size to date in order to ensure adequate statistical power and (2) extend the study of same-modality deviance distraction to the visual modality. We compared 42 young and 42 older adults in auditory and visual duration discrimination tasks where stimuli presented with rare and unexpected task-irrelevant changes in pitch (in the auditory task) or location (in the visual task). The statistical power of our experiment to detect an effect size of d = 1.04 was .999. Our results showed deviance distraction (longer RTs for deviant stimuli than for standard stimuli) in both modalities. Importantly, these effects did not vary with age. Strong support for the absence of age-related variation in deviance distraction was further demonstrated by Bayes Factor analysis. We conclude that aging does not appear to increase behavioral distraction by deviant stimuli in same-modality oddball tasks.