Saying "Computer" Is More Distracting That Tracing Circles on Paper

An example of a study that doesn’t say as much to me as to the researchers:

does our inner voice help us with impulse control?

To get at this question, the researchers asked people to do several other things while they performed the Go/No-Go task. On some trials, people had to say out loud the word “computer” over and over while they did the Go/No-Go task. Because repeating “computer” uses the same verbal resources that support our inner voice, it ties up our inner voice so it can’t function properly. If, our inner voice is important for controlling our impulses (e.g., “don’t press the button”), then it follows that people should perform worse on the Go/No-Go task when they are repeating “computer” than when they are not. Of course, to ensure that it is not the addition of any activity that disrupts Go/No-Go task performance, but specifically an activity that prevents folks from wielding the voice in their head, on other trials people performed another activity that was more spatial in nature. People were asked to continuously draw circles on a piece of paper with their non-dominant hand. Like repeating “computer” over and over, this circle drawing task is repetitive and requires some attention to do correctly, but importantly, it doesn’t occupy verbal resources so the inner voice can still function properly.

Compared with the circle-drawing task, repeating “computer” resulted in more impulsive responding. People had a greater tendency to make a ‘Go’ response - even when they shouldn’t have. These results suggest that the inner voice helps us to exert self-control by enhancing our ability to restrain our impulses.

Tullett, A., & Inzlicht, M. (2010). The voice of self-control: Blocking the inner voice increases impulsive responding. Acta Psychologica, 135, 252-256.

(the task is purely visual-motor, and “Go” happens 2/3 of the time, so the mistakes tend to be in that direction)

All this says to me is that there’s a conflict between saying a word, and performing the Go/No-Go task, which is greater than the conflict from a repetitive motion with the left hand.

It’s obvious that some things are distracting. I can’t listen to someone and read at the same time (understanding both). I can’t talk freely and read something else at the same time. It’s also obvious that many people choose to perform some repetitive fidgeting motion while they think.

They’re going to have to get much more creative if they want to convince me they have uncovered some general principle - what they wish they’d shown is that some of the verbal resources of the brain are recruited for arbitrary rule-following tasks, where an exception to the usual pattern happens enough that the initial tendency has to be overriden.