van Os, Marjolein; Kray, Jutta; Demberg, Vera

Mishearing as a Side Effect of Rational Language Comprehension in Noise

Frontiers in Psychology, 12, pp. 3488, 2021, ISSN 1664-1078.

Language comprehension in noise can sometimes lead to mishearing, due to the noise disrupting the speech signal. Some of the difficulties in dealing with the noisy signal can be alleviated by drawing on the context – indeed, top-down predictability has shown to facilitate speech comprehension in noise. Previous studies have furthermore shown that strong reliance on the top-down predictions can lead to increased rates of mishearing, especially in older adults, which are attributed to general deficits in cognitive control in older adults. We here propose that the observed mishearing may be a simple consequence of rational language processing in noise. It should not be related to failure on the side of the older comprehenders, but instead would be predicted by rational processing accounts. To test this hypothesis, we extend earlier studies by running an online listening experiment with younger and older adults, carefully controlling the target and direct competitor in our stimuli. We show that mishearing is directly related to the perceptibility of the signal. We furthermore add an analysis of wrong responses, which shows that results are at odds with the idea that participants overly strongly rely on context in this task, as most false answers are indeed close to the speech signal, and not to the semantics of the context.