Distraction by emotional sounds: Disentangling arousal benefits and orienting costs

Caroline Max, Andreas Widmann, Sonja A. Kotz, Erich Schröger, Nicole Wetzel

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Unexpectedly occurring task-irrelevant stimuli have been shown to impair performance. They capture attention away from the main task leaving fewer resources for target processing. However, the actual distraction effect depends on various variables; for example, only target-informative distractors have been shown to cause costs of attentional orienting. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that high arousing emotional distractors, as compared with low arousing neutral distractors, can improve performance by increasing alertness. We aimed to separate costs of attentional orienting and benefits of arousal by presenting negative and neutral environmental sounds (novels) as oddballs in an auditory-visual distraction paradigm. Participants categorized pictures while task-irrelevant sounds preceded visual targets in two conditions: (a) informative sounds reliably signaled onset and occurrence of visual targets, and (b) noninformative sounds occurred unrelated to visual targets. Results confirmed that only informative novels yield distraction. Importantly, irrespective of sounds' informational value participants responded faster in trials with high arousing negative as compared with moderately arousing neutral novels. That is, costs related to attentional orienting are modulated by information, whereas benefits related to emotional arousal are independent of a sound's informational value. This favors a nonspecific facilitating cross-modal influence of emotional arousal on visual task performance and suggests that behavioral distraction by noninformative novels is controlled after their motivational significance has been determined.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)428-437
    Number of pages10
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2015


    • Attentional orienting
    • Cross-modal distraction
    • Novel environmental sounds
    • Phasic alertness
    • Task-relevance


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