The determinants of auditory distraction during reading: an eye-movement investigation.
Authors: Vasilev, M.
Everyday reading rarely occurs in complete silence. Whether reading at the office, on the way to work, or in a cafeteria, people are often exposed to background sounds such as speech, noise or music that may distract them from their task. While a lot of research has focused on how background sounds affect readers’ comprehension, less is known about their influence on the ongoing reading process. The present research investigated the effect of continuous and discrete background sounds on eye-movements during reading in an attempt to find out what makes such sounds distracting and how they affect online reading behaviour. The present investigation started with a meta-analysis of previous findings, which revealed that background speech, noise, and music all have a modest but reliably detrimental effect on reading comprehension. The first two experiments showed that intelligible speech disrupts eye-movements during reading mostly due to its semantic properties, which interfere with extracting the meaning of the text. This disruption was found to occur after the initial lexical processing of words and it resulted in more regressions and more re-reading fixations. However, participant’s immediate comprehension of the text remained unaffected. Two further studies suggested that the increase in re-reading behaviour occurs in an attempt to maintain comprehension of the text under such distracting conditions because intelligible speech disrupted comprehension accuracy once participants could not selectively re-read the text. The final experiment showed that discrete deviant sounds also disrupt eye-movements during reading and lead to longer fixation durations when the sound is first heard. However, unlike intelligible speech, this type of distraction was likely due to saccadic inhibition of the oculomotor system. Taken together, the present results demonstrate that eye-movements during reading can reveal subtle auditory distraction effects that may not be detected in measures of comprehension accuracy and that they can give important theoretical insights into their cognitive and oculomotor origin. The findings are discussed in terms of theories of auditory distraction and computational models of eye-movement control during reading.