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The Effects Of Distractions Psychology Essay

2332 words (9 pages) Essay in Psychology

5/12/16 Psychology Reference this

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To maintain individuals short-term memory one must be able to discern and ignore distractions. Referring to some elements of previous studies and approaching a different perspective, this report aimed to investigate memory recall under different levels of distraction and t if the relevance of words has an effect on number of items to be recalled. 40 participants, 20 males and 20 female were tested and what was measured was memory recall. The data were analysed with a 2×2 between groups ANOVA and the results show that there are significant improvements in recall when items were related. In addition, plunge in recall was seen when attentive distraction was involved. However, between these factors no significant interaction was observed.


Memory and attention are instruments on which many people rely every day. How and what is remembered plays a major role in deciding how people act on daily basis. In short-term memory, an important factor in short time memory recall is chunking or words having strong association with each other (Miller, 1956 reported by Eysenk, 2009).Connected letters or words are easier to remember than the unconnected ones because of their suggestive internal configuration.

Divided and auditory attentions were issues that have been intensely studied over years. One of the first researchers to study attention was Cherry (1953) and one of his famous study was “The Cocktail Party Problem” in which an individual was trying to focus only on one conversation whilst many other conversation were taking place in the same room (Reported by Groome et al, 2006). Cherry found that we make use of physical distinctions between the varied auditory messages to select the one of interest. Task similarity is another issue to consider. It is widely accepted that similar tasks are more difficult to perform than dissimilar ones. (Eysenk, 2009). Can students learn while listening to music? Many students study in this manner; or maybe type of music influences studying and learning. Research also suggests that short-term memory is mainly phonological concerning an articulatory loop of rehearsal in working memory (Baddeley, 1995) (Reported by Groome et al 2008). One of the proposed theories of forgetting is the inference theory according to which the forgetting is caused by other information getting in the way. One of the main ways to measure this has been to inflict a distraction during or after the items that are to be memorized. Wolach and Pratt (2002) considered the effects of phonological and noise distracters on short-term memory recall and confirmed that both distracters negatively affected the memorization route.

Overall though, with all the research that has been carried out in this areas, the suggestions would be that type of words and distraction have an impact on short term memory. However, the link between memory, attention and distractions seems to be more complex and the question that remains: is memory also influenced by the type of distraction encountered, or it be considered that regardless of type of distraction recall would be the same? Even if there is no previous research on this specific issue, this study wanted to take a step further and combine all the topics mentioned above. The aim of this study is to investigate memory recall under different levels of distraction(attentive and inattentive distraction ) and also whether or not the relevance between materials need to be recalled has an effect on the amount of material that needs to be recalled .Specifically, there are several predictions:

There will be an effect of type of words on the number of words recalled

There will be an effect of type of distraction on the number of words recalled

There will be no significant interaction between the type of distraction and type of words.



In order to investigate memory recall under different levels of distraction, a between groups 2 factor design fully independent was employed. The first factor analysed was the type of words recalled with two levels: related and unrelated words, whilst the second factor being analysed was type of distraction with two levels: attentive and inattentive distraction. The dependent variable was the number of words recalled in each condition.

The data were obtained using a convenience sample of 40 participants.


The sample consisted of 40 participants, 20 males and 20 females selected by the experimenters from different educational and economical backgrounds. The participants’ ages were between 18 and 65. The mean age for females was 29 and a range of 37 and the mean age for men was 34 and range 57.


There were two types of recall stimuli used within this study. The first recall stimulus was chunks of words with similar theme and related (e.g. fridge, food, cooking, etc), whilst the second stimuli represented non chunked or unrelated words ( e.g. milk, belt, taxi, etc) (see Appendix 1 ).There were 20 words in each category.

The song “Blue” by Eiffel 65(released in 1999) took the form of distracter, being played on full volume on a mobile phone (I-Phone 3G, from Apple) without headphones, at the same time whilst presenting the list of words. Written briefing of the study was given to participants along with the consent form, which they had to sign if they agreed to participate (see Appendix 2). At the end of the study, written debriefing was offered (see Appendix 3).


Four undergraduate students from University of Westminster conducted the study. The students were provided with clear instructions from the seminar leader on what the experiment should be based (i.e. cognitive theme, no substance involved). All four experimenters agreed the design and materials.

Each experimenter recruited 10 of their group of friends or families outside the university. In order have an equal number of males and females, each experimenter recruited five males and five females. Even if the data was collected separately by the experimenters, in order to avoid order effects, the study was being conducted in the same day at the same time. The participants were offered verbally and written information (see Appendix 2) on what the study was about along with the consent form which they were asked to read and sign if they agree to participate in the study.

Two recall stimuli were used: a list of words with similar theme or related (e.g. fridge, food, cooking) and a list of unrelated words (e.g. milk, belt, taxi,) (see Appendix 1). There were 20 words in list and the maximum possible score to achieve in each condition was 20. The scores were interpreted as follows: the higher the score, the better memory was considered.

There were four conditions are presented below:

Related words/ inattentive distraction

Related words/Attentive distraction

Unrelated words/ inattentive distraction

Unrelated words/ Attentive distraction.

Each list was presented visually for a total of 2 minutes in the same time that the song “Blue” was played out lout on full volume. Participants in conditions 2 and 4 were also instructed to pay attention to the song and make a tail on a piece of paper every time they heard the word “blue” in the song whilst trying to learn the words; this representing the attentive distraction. Participants in conditions 1 and 3 were only instructed to memorize the words without paying attention to the song; this represented inattentive distraction.

Following presentation and song, all participants were asked to count down from 100 in 3’s in order to prevent rehearsal and they were given 20 seconds in order to do this. Then, participants were given two minute to recall as many items as they could utilising a free recall design.

After the scored had been totalled, were given verbal and written debriefing along with access to NHS memory loss helpline. The experimenter offered an e-mail address for further questions. The data from all participants were collected and collated by the experimenters.

Ethical issues

The study was ethically conducted, receiving the approval from Department of Psychology Ethics Committee(see Appendix 4). Participation was entirely voluntarily and the participants had the right to withdraw at any time without having to give any reason. At the end of the study, debriefing in a written form was given to the participants. However, participants might have found the song “Blue” disturbing in a way. Ethical guidelines were followed when choosing the song. Finally, participants might have been upset or worried if their memory recall score was low but a NHS helpline number was provided.


The descriptive statistics presented in Table 1 show the mean number of correct recalled items by participants in each condition.

Table 1: Descriptive showing the mean and standard deviation of number for correct recalled items in each condition

















The greatest rate of recall is observed in the Related/ inattentive condition with participants recalling a mean number of 13.4 with a SD of 4.01.

The next best performance was observed in Related/Attentive condition, participants recalling a mean number of 12.8 and a SD of 3.29.

Participants performed the least well in the Unrelated/Attentive condition with a mean recall score of 7.1 and a SD of 2.8, compared to Unrelated/ inattentive where participants recalled a mean of 11.6 and a SD of 3.13.

In order to discuss whether the differences discussed above are significant, a 2×2 between subjects ANOVA was conducted.

Table 2: Outcome of the analysis of variance: main effects and interactions


Type III Sum of Squares




Partial Eta Squared

Type of Words






Type of Distraction






Words X Distraction









Figure 1: Plot showing estimated marginal means of score

The results show as follows:

Main effect of type of words (F (1, 36) = 13.71, p= .001, partial n2= .27)(see figure 1)

Main effect of type of distraction (F (1, 36) = 6.34, p= .016, partial n2= .15) (see figure 1)

No significant interaction between the type of words and type of distraction (F (1, 36) = 3.71, p= .062, partial n2= .09). (A full analysis can be seen in Appendix 5, and the raw data can be observed in Appendix 6)


The results of this study showed that regarding the type of words recalled, a main effect on words was observed, indicating that participants assigned to the related words condition recalled significantly more words than those in the unrelated words condition. The first hypothesis was accepted. In a way this data, supports the findings of Miller (1956) who have found a superior effect of chunking on recall, also supporting the inference theory.

There was also a main effect of type of distraction, showing that when participants were asked not to pay attention at the song, there was a better recall than for participants who were asked to pay attention at the song. The second hypothesis was accepted. Even if no studies have been done so far to resemble with this study, Wolach and Pratt’s findings stated that a distraction technique negatively affect short-term memory, which is similar to what this study found. In order to truly test if the type of distraction does affect memory, this study needs additional replications and probably larger samples; at this stage, it cannot be considered valid and applicable to the real world.

In terms of interaction, no significant interaction was observed; this could happen from several reasons. For instance, the study could have benefited from a larger sample size and maybe looking at age groups that are more specific rather than just a broad age range; or the fact that participants were tested in different locations can be taken as confounding variable and might have been affected the results.

Based on this research, apart from a larger sample size, and looking at age, it would be interesting to see if gender has also an influence on recall. Another weakness could be the fact that the participants were tasted in different locations and this could have made a difference; for future studies, testing everyone in the same place and under the same conditions could offer different results. Moving on to the type of distraction used and even if the song was non harming in terms of wording , maybe this study failed to take into account the personal preferences regarding music of the participants; or if the song would have played in the headphones would have been different results?

Another issue would be that although the names remained anonymous, participants might have been anxious about themselves if scoring low. Finally, the sample was not selected randomly. The lack of random selection, sample size and lack of previous research also make it difficult to address conclusions in general and to relate the results to society. For future research, it would be important to address all the above weaknesses; perhaps more accurate results could be achieved.

Overall, this study suggested that suggested that individuals should strive to use the technique of chunking in helping them to remember things on a day-day basis, improve their learning and should bear in mind that distractions are expected to grounds memory loss. However, in terms of type of distraction , further research and studies is needed to clarify if and what types of distractions influence memory recall in order to increase one’s knowledge in this field and to improve life on the day to day basis and reducing memory loss.

Word Count: 2114

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