Attention Interference, Automatic Processing, and the Stroop Effect

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The experiment tests whether conflict takes place between the automatic process of reading a word and the controlled process of naming the ink colour of the word by replicating a version of the Stroop effect. A sample of 20 volunteering participants, 10 men and 10 women, aged 18-69, took part in the experiment. Participants were given two conditions, one list with colour-related distractor words and one list with colour-neutral words. For each participant, time necessary to name the ink colour of the list of words was recorded per condition. The results showed that participants named the ink colours of neutral words faster than of colour-related distractor words ( Overall alpha level was .011). Therefore, we can say that participants’ inability to ignore irrelevant stimuli is dependent of the semantic meaning of the stimuli.

According to William James (as cited in Edgar, 2007) attention is a model of selecting and processing multiple streams of incoming information. Selective attention is an information processing procedure that allows focusing on specific stimuli while preventing other distracting information to interfere. This procedure is necessary as we are not capable of processing all incoming stimuli simultaneously and also need to detect relevant information as quickly as possible. Selective attention is therefore a performance limiting procedure as put forward by Kahneman’s model of ‘limited-capacity’ central processor (as cited in Edgar, 2007). According to his theory, this processor evaluates how demanding it is to process the stimuli and then adjusts attention accordingly. Moreover, processing capacities can be influenced by factors like arousal. These findings were also supported by Posner and Boies’s ‘dual-task studies of attention’ (as cited in Edgar, 2007) which corroborated the idea that there are limited amounts of attention available for specific cognitive processes. Broadbent’s ‘bottleneck theory of attention’ (as cited in Edgar, 2007) seems to validate Kahneman’s model. This theory suggests that attention selectively filters information based on the sensory and physical characteristics of the stimuli. It is based on dichotic listening tests where participants recalled separate digits, which were simultaneously presented to each ear, ear-by-ear rather than switching back and forth from one ear to another. He concluded that attention could switch from one channel to another and that only one stream of information can be dealt with while unattended messages are not semantically processed. Kahneman, as well as Posner and Boies, and Broadbent’s findings suggest that selective attention is a controlled process to prevent overload of processing capacity as people have limited processing capacities. Based on the assumption that attentional resources are limited, Schneider and Shiffrin (as cited in Edgar, 2007), looked into how these limitations are coped with and identified some properties of automatic processes in comparison with controlled processes. Their research showed that controlled processes are under direct control and of limited capacity, automatic processes, though, are unconscious, relatively free of capacity limitation and tied to learning. As automatic processes necessitate a lot of training and are hard to modify it is difficult to unlearn them. Reading is such an automatic process where practice leads to a decrease in resource demands and irrelevant stimuli is ignored. Stroop (as cited in Edgar, 2007) also carried out research into reading as an automatic process. First, participants read names of colour words in black ink, then they read the list of colour words in conflicting colour ink. Stroop noticed that participants needed more time for the second task implying that the meaning of the colour words interferes with naming the ink colour. This interference takes place because naming a colour requires more attention than the automized process of reading the word and in this case word...
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