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The time-course of distractor processing in auditory spatial negative priming

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The spatial negative priming effect denotes slowed-down and sometimes more error-prone responding to a location that previously contained a distractor as compared with a previously unoccupied location. In vision, this effect has been attributed to the inhibition of irrelevant locations, and recently, of their task-assigned responses. Interestingly, auditory versions of the task did not yield evidence for inhibitory processing of task-irrelevant events which might suggest modality-specific distractor processing in vision and audition. Alternatively, the inhibitory processes may differ in how they develop over time. If this were the case, the absence of inhibitory after-effects might be due to an inappropriate timing of successive presentations in previous auditory spatial negative priming tasks. Specifically, the distractor may not yet have been inhibited or inhibition may already have dissipated at the time performance is assessed. The present study was conducted to test these alternatives. Participants indicated the location of a target sound in the presence of a concurrent distractor sound. Performance was assessed between two successive prime-probe presentations. The time between the prime response and the probe sounds (response-stimulus interval, RSI) was systematically varied between three groups (600, 1250, 1900 ms). For all RSI groups, the results showed no evidence for inhibitory distractor processing but conformed to the predictions of the feature mismatching hypothesis. The results support the assumption that auditory distractor processing does not recruit an inhibitory mechanism but involves the integration of spatial and sound identity features into common representations.

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  1. 1.

    This conclusion is further supported by studies employing so-called “free choice” probe trials. While prime trials require a standard forced choice response to the prime target location, participants can choose to answer with one of two valid response options in probe trials. In the critical trials, prime distractor and probe target are presented at different locations and participants can decide whether to perform the former prime distractor response or a new response to the probe target location. The finding that former distractor-assigned responses are less likely to be executed in these trials has been taken as further evidence for distractor-related response inhibition (e.g., Buckolz et al., 2015; Fitzgeorge et al., 2011).

  2. 2.

    Buckolz, Fitzgeorge, and Knowles (2012) argued that a location-based “orienting inhibition” mechanism only operates in visuospatial negative priming when parafoveal stimulus locations are employed in the task at hand.

  3. 3.

    Note that this effect was found in most, but not in all auditory spatial negative priming tasks which might indicate that object file retrieval is more effectively triggered by location repetitions (as compared with sound identity repetitions) between prime distractor and probe target. Moreover, evidence for feature mismatching effects has also been reported in visuospatial negative priming (Park & Kanwisher, 1994). However, several studies found reliable spatial negative priming effects in the absence of feature mismatches (Milliken et al., 2000; Tipper et al., 1995), so that this mechanism seems to be only of minor importance in the visual modality.

  4. 4.

    Ignored repetition and control trials in Experiment 2 did not require a prime response.

  5. 5.

    Given that after-effects attributed to inhibition in vision require at least 75 ms to emerge but are present, at the latest, after 750 ms following the prime presentation (Buckolz et al., 2008), it might also be possible that reliable performance costs in ignored repetition trials (as compared with control trials) can also be obtained with interval durations in between these values. However, this assumption remains speculative. Therefore, the presumed time-course of distractor response inhibition in the visual modality can only be tentatively applied to the 600-ms RSI in the present study.


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The research reported in this article was supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Ma 2610/2-2).

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Correspondence to Malte Möller.

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The authors Malte Möller, Susanne Mayr, and Axel Buchner certify (1) that all procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards, (2) that informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study, and (3) that they have no conflict of interest.

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Möller, M., Mayr, S. & Buchner, A. The time-course of distractor processing in auditory spatial negative priming. Psychological Research 80, 744–756 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-015-0685-6

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  • Negative Priming
  • Probe Target
  • Object File
  • Distractor Event
  • Negative Priming Effect