Working-memory disruption by task-irrelevant talkers depends on degree of talker familiarity

Research paper by Jens Kreitewolf, Malte Wöstmann, Sarah Tune, Michael Plöchl, Jonas Obleser

Indexed on: 16 Apr '19Published on: 16 Apr '19Published in: Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics


When one is listening, familiarity with an attended talker’s voice improves speech comprehension. Here, we instead investigated the effect of familiarity with a distracting talker. In an irrelevant-speech task, we assessed listeners’ working memory for the serial order of spoken digits when a task-irrelevant, distracting sentence was produced by either a familiar or an unfamiliar talker (with rare omissions of the task-irrelevant sentence). We tested two groups of listeners using the same experimental procedure. The first group were undergraduate psychology students (N = 66) who had attended an introductory statistics course. Critically, each student had been taught by one of two course instructors, whose voices served as the familiar and unfamiliar task-irrelevant talkers. The second group of listeners were family members and friends (N = 20) who had known either one of the two talkers for more than 10 years. Students, but not family members and friends, made more errors when the task-irrelevant talker was familiar versus unfamiliar. Interestingly, the effect of talker familiarity was not modulated by the presence of task-irrelevant speech: Students experienced stronger working memory disruption by a familiar talker, irrespective of whether they heard a task-irrelevant sentence during memory retention or merely expected it. While previous work has shown that familiarity with an attended talker benefits speech comprehension, our findings indicate that familiarity with an ignored talker disrupts working memory for target speech. The absence of this effect in family members and friends suggests that the degree of familiarity modulates the memory disruption.