Is background sound distracting? It depends how you look at it!
New international research investigates how background sounds impair ability to remember information
Research jointly-led by the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Gävle, in Sweden, has shown that the extent to which some background sounds disrupt people’s memory performance depends on how they direct their attention to the information they’re attempting to memorise.
The researchers, in collaboration with Royal Holloway, University of London, presented people with sequences of large letters made up of small letters. People’s attention was directed so that they were either required to focus on remembering the sequence of small letters or the sequence of large letters. It is known that people find reading the smaller letters more mentally demanding than reading the large letters.
The researchers found that an unexpected background sound, like a burst of noise, significantly impaired people’s ability to remember the sequence of large letters, but not the sequence of small letters.
The work follows on from research from the same group demonstrating that reading text in a difficult-to-read font can reduce the distraction often caused by background sound.
"Difficult tasks typically lead to people increasing their engagement with the task such that their attention is less likely to be captured by background sounds."
UCLan’s Dr John Marsh, Guild Research Fellow in Psychology, said: “Difficult tasks typically lead to people increasing their engagement with the task such that their attention is less likely to be captured by background sounds.”
However, not all kinds of auditory distraction are modulated by task-focus in this way: The researchers also showed that distraction from continuously changing sound distracted task performance regardless of which dimension of the stimuli had to be recalled.
The researchers are seeking to explore whether the knowledge gleaned from their studies can be used to support individuals with attentional problems within educational settings or the productivity of employees within noisy open-plan offices.
For more information, you can read the article here.
Picture: Research found unexpected background sound significantly impaired people’s ability to remember the sequence of large letters, but not the sequence of small letters.