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Task Switching and Distractibility

Brand, Sarah Louise; (2007) Task Switching and Distractibility. Doctoral thesis, University of London. Green open access

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In this thesis I examined the effects of task switching on people’s ability to ignore irrelevant distractors. Load theory proposes that distractor interference critically depends on the availability of executive control to minimise the effects of irrelevant stimuli (e.g. Lavie, 2000). Much work on task switching suggests that task switching demands executive control in order to prepare for and implement a switch between tasks (e.g. Monsell, 2003; Rubinstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001). I therefore hypothesised that the executive demand of a task switch will result in reduced ability to reject irrelevant distractors in selective attention tasks. The research reported provided support for this hypothesis by showing that task switching results in greater distractor interference as measured with the “flanker task” (e.g. Eriksen & Eriksen, 1974) and with the attentional capture task (e.g. Theeuwes, 1990), even when there was no overlap between the stimuli and responses for the two tasks, and when task-repeated and switch trials were presented within the same block (in AAABBB designs). This research also showed that dissociable executive demands were involved in switching tasks (AAABBB), compared with mixing tasks (ABAB versus AAA), and these executive demands were found to control rejection of distractors in the flanker task and attentional capture task, respectively. In addition, task switching reduced internal distraction by task-unrelated thoughts. The contrast between the effects of task switching on internal versus external sources of distraction further supported the involvement of executive control in task switching. Finally, individual differences in operational span capacity predicted the magnitude of task switching costs and flanker interference effects, suggesting the involvement of executive control in both abilities. Overall, this research highlights a new consequence of task switching on selective attention and distractibility, supporting predictions derived from prevalent views on the role of executive control in task switching and selective attention.

Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Title:Task Switching and Distractibility
Open access status:An open access version is available from UCL Discovery

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