Alicia Leiva is awarded her PhD with highest mark

This Thursday 28th July Alicia Leiva defended her PhD thesis entitled "TOWARDS A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF DISTRACTION BY UNEXPECTED STIMULI ACROSS THE LIFESPAN" supervised by Dr Fabrice Parmentier, co-supervised by Prof. Pilar Andrés, and with the expert guidance of Prof. Frederick Verbruggen during Alicia's three months research visit at the University of Exeter.

The thesis was defended in front of a distinguished examination panel including Dr Mateu Servera (UIB), Prof. Bill Macken (Cardiff University, UK), and Dr. Stefan Berti (University of Mainz, Germany). Following an excellent presentation and stimulating session of questions and answers, Alicia was awarded the title of "Doctor in Psychology" with the highest mark ("cum laude").

An impressive output: 5 publications in high impact factor international journals!

Alicia's thesis focuses on the effect of development and aging on behavioral distraction ellicited by unexpected sounds. The work includes a series of original laboratory experiments that led to the publication of five articles in excellent peer-reviewed scientific journals, an impressive achievement making it the most successful experimental psychology thesis defended at the University of the Balearic Islands:

  • Leiva, A., Parmentier, F. B. R., & Andrés, P. (2015a). Distraction by deviance: Comparing the effects of auditory and visual deviant stimuli on auditory and visual target processing. Experimental Psychology, 62(1), 54-65. doi: 10.1027/1618-3169/a000273.
    Impact factor: 2.076
  • Leiva, A., Parmentier, F. B. R., & Andrés, P. (2015b). Aging increases distraction by auditory oddballs in visual, but not auditory tasks. Psychological Research, 79(3), 401-402. doi: 10.1007/s00426-014-0573-5.
    Impact factor: 2.863
  • Leiva, A., Andrés, P., & Parmentier, F. B. R. (2015). When aging does not increase distraction: Evidence from pure auditory and visual oddball tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. 41(6),1612-1622. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000112.
    Impact factor: 3.358
  •  Leiva, A., Parmentier, F. B. R., Elchlepp, H., & Verbruggen, F. (2015). Reorienting the mind: The impact of novel sounds on go/no-go performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(5),1197-202. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000111.
    Impact factor: 3.358
  • Leiva, A., Andrés, P., Servera, M., Verbruggen, F., & Parmentier, F. B. R. (in press). The role of age, working memory and response inhibition in deviance distraction: a cross-sectional study. Developmental Psychology.
    Impact factor: 4.141


Selective attention is the ability to filter out task-irrelevant stimuli in order to concentrate on the task at hand. Other mechanisms ensure that unexpected but potentially important stimuli can however break through attention and capture our attention. While adaptive, these mechanisms can have one downside when the attention capturing stimulus is of no relevance: distraction. Past research explored the mechanisms involved in this type of distraction and its behavioural impact but evidence is limited, especially with respect to its variation with age. Therefore, the main objective of this dissertation is to reach a better understanding of the cognitive mechanisms underpinning distraction by unexpected stimuli through the lifespan.

A total of 5 experimental series form part of this dissertation. Publication 1 provides original evidence questioning the hypothesis of deviance distraction as a modality-independent mechanism. In this study, we orthogonally contrasted the sensory modalities of the irrelevant and relevant stimuli in oddball tasks. The results showed deviance distraction for auditory deviants irrespective of the targets’ modality. Visual deviants, in contrast, produced no deviance distraction (for visual or for auditory target stimuli), except in the specific situation in which participants were forced to attend to the irrelevant stimuli and under specific conditions related to the spatial properties of the stimuli. Following the evidence that our cognitive system seems to be more vulnerable to distraction when deviant stimuli are presented in the auditory modality than when presented in the visual modality (at least when irrelevant and target stimuli do not form part of the same object), in Publication 2 we used this modality to study, for the first time, the effect of ageing on deviance distraction in cross-modal (auditory-visual) and uni-modal (auditory–auditory) oddball tasks (within-participant). The results showed an effect of age on distraction in the cross-modal task but not in the uni-modal task. In Publication 3 we studied the effect of age on deviance distraction using uni-modal oddball tasks, visual and auditory, in which irrelevant and relevant information formed part of the same perceptual object. Our results showed deviance distraction in the auditory and visual modalities, but the amount of distraction did not vary with age. Hence, together, Publications 2 and 3 provide strong evidence that the effect of ageing on deviance distraction is specific to the cross-modal oddball task and that deviance distraction in purely auditory or visual oddball tasks does not increase in old age.

In Publication 4 we studied the link between response inhibition and attentional reorienting. Response inhibition and attentional reorienting are usually studied separately but recent research has proposed that both processes might rely on similar cognitive and neural mechanisms. In two experiments, we contrasted the “circuit breaker” account (which assumes that unexpected events produce global suppression of motor output) and the “stimulus detection” account (which assumes that attention is reoriented to unexpected events). Our results supported the “stimulus detection” account, highlighting the importance of reorienting our attention in order to detect the unexpected signals and consequently cancel or update our actions.

In Publication 5, we adopted a more global perspective. We explored deviance distraction across the lifespan (comparing children, young and older adults) as well as the role of working memory capacity (WMC) and response inhibition in deviance distraction across the lifespan. The results revealed deviance distraction in all age groups, but more so in older adults compared to young adults and children (who did not differ from each other). Response inhibition did not account for deviance distraction in any of the age groups while WMC correlated positively with deviance distraction in children, negatively in older adults, and not at all in young adults.