Alcohol increases inattentional blindness when cognitive resources are not consumed by ongoing task demands

Alistair Harvey, Sarah Bayless, Georgia Hyams

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Abstract

Rationale - Inattentional blindness (IB) is the inability to detect a salient yet unexpected task irrelevant stimulus in one’s visual field when attention is engaged in an ongoing primary task. The present study is the first to examine the impact of both task difficulty and alcohol consumption on IB and primary task performance.

Objectives - On the basis of alcohol myopia theory, the combined effects of increased task difficulty and alcohol intoxication were predicted to impair task performance and restrict the focus of attention on to task relevant stimuli. We therefore expected increases in breath alcohol concentration to be associated with highest rates of IB, particularly under more demanding primary task conditions.

Methods - This hypothesis was tested in a field study where alcohol drinkers in a local bar were randomly assigned to perform a dynamic IB task with an easy or hard visual tracking and counting task at its core (Simons and Chabris 1999).

Results - Increasing the difficulty of the primary task reduced task accuracy but, surprisingly, had no impact on the rate of IB. Higher levels of alcohol intoxication were, however, associated with poorer task performance and an increased rate of IB, but only under easy primary task conditions.

Conclusions - Results are consistent with alcohol myopia theory. Alcohol intoxication depletes attentional resources thus reducing the drinker’s awareness of salient stimuli that are irrelevant to some ongoing primary task. We conclude that this effect was not observed for our hard task because it is more resource intensive, so leaves no spare attentional capacity for alcohol to deplete.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-315
Number of pages7
JournalPsychopharmacology
Volume235
Issue number1
Early online date2 Nov 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018

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