The Effects of Congruent and Incongruent Sounds in the Background on Memory

Posted on: 16th May 2023


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The research was conducted to determine the effects of congruent and incongruent sounds in the background on memory. The participants were given a test to measure their ability to recall information. The results showed that people who heard congruent sounds could remember more than incongruent sounds. The study was conducted with two groups of participants. The first group was asked to memorize a list of words in the presence of neutral sounds when the researcher played the “How to Take Care of a Puppy: Bringing a Puppy Home” video. The second group had the same task but listened to incongruent sounds like birds chirping or oven clocks ticking. Both groups were asked to recall the list after exposure to different sounds. The results showed that the group that listened to incongruent sounds recalled more words than those who listened to neutral sounds. This indicates that background noise can help boost memory recall in cases where there is no interference between the information we need to remember and other stimuli. While this study does not prove that background noise improves memory, it can affect how well we remember things. This study used an independent group design. Based on the results, it can be concluded that congruence between auditory and visual stimuli improves learning and memory because it creates an event that is easier for the brain to process and store into long-term memory (LTM).

The Effects of Congruent and Incongruent Sounds in the Background on Memory

In modern psychology, an individual’s ability to intentionally focus their attention while avoiding non-relevant distractions establishes a foundational approach for defining cognitive control and selective attention (Patterson & Kahan, 2022). In addition, findings from research studies indicate that an individual’s capacity to selectively attend to appropriate stimuli while showing resistance or ignorance to conflicting stimuli may lead to enhancements in learning (Damjanovic & Kawalec, 2021).

On the other hand, many experts have attempted to interpret the impacts of noise on human perception and memory. According to Vachon et al. (2017, p. 622), “the occurrence of an unexpected, infrequent sound in an otherwise homogeneous auditory background tends to disrupt the ongoing cognitive task.” Cognitive psychologists use people’s susceptibility to background or noise distraction to understanding the nature of selective attention and short-term memory. As a result, many theories explain why people perform better in silence than with sounds in the background (Sörqvist, 2015; Lyxell & Rönnberg, 2003). The human brain applies visual working memory to retain information for goal-directed behavior. Congruent and incongruent environmental sounds have varying impacts on memory while stimulating the brain to process and maintain information (Rosner & Milliken, 2015).

Literature Review

Learning and Memory

Learning and memory go hand in hand. Learning is the acquisition of information, while memory is the retention of acquired knowledge. Gupta et al. (2018, p.156) explained that the brain has to be stimulated for the two to occur. Therefore, when information touches the brain, it has to be modified in unison so that the system can retain it. However, how the brain receives and processes information determines its maintenance (Lachman et al., 2015). For example, the act of processing memory is different when congruent or incongruent background sounds impact the brain.

As reported by the senior contributing authors of Psychology 2E, an Introduction to Psychology textbook, memory is often compared to a computer processing system. Specifically, memory is an information processing system. Memory consists of three processes; encoding, storage, and retrieval (Speilman et al., 2020). Encoding is the initial learning of information, storage creates a permanent place for the information, and retrieval allows access continuously over long periods.

Cognitive psychologists Atkinson and Shiffrin proposed the multi-store model of memory, also known as the modal model (1968), a structural model which consists of three stores: a sensory register, short-term memory (STM), and long-term memory (LTM). The multi-store model of memory suggests multiple storages for memories and that memory can move through the repositories.

Although some scientists argue that the entire brain is used for memory, some parts have specific functions in both learning and memory. For example, there is considerable evidence that epinephrine and glucocorticoid effects on memory are mediated by the amygdala’s influences (McGaugh et al., 1996). As well as in humans, hippocampal function underlies the ability to recall specific personal experiences (Fortin et al., 200 2, p. 458). As claimed in an article by Curtis and D’Esposito (2003), the prefrontal cortex also plays a crucial role in working memory. Lastly, the cerebellum is where new memories are encoded (Speilman et al., 2020). All the brain parts work together to encode, store, and retrieve memories.

Congruent and Incongruent Sounds

It sounds interactions can influence stimuli collection and processing. Research indicates that cross-modal semantic congruence facilitates long-term episodic memory; if a person experiences congruent or low conflict sounds in the background, it effectively increases their subsequent memory, as Amador et al. (2016, p. 1206) elaborate.

Incongruent sounds present high conflict. The mind has to fight the conflict and concentrate to process and retain the information. Panteleeva et al. (2021) illustrate that memories triggered by music are related to incongruence effects. Thus, incongruence musical cues such as sad music with happy facial expressions trigger more voluntary and involuntary memory.

Research has increased their intention on people’s ability to concentrate while ignoring background distractions. Ptok (2019, p.858) explains that studies show that attending to relevant stimuli while at the same time resisting conflicting impulses enhances memory. Moreover, it helps the brain encode task stimuli to retain better-acquired information (Xie et al., 2022). However, the impacts are not the same on incongruent distractions. Incongruent sounds produce a higher conflict to the brain, which it has to cope with to retain information (Monteiro et al., 2018; Vo et al., 2021). However, the higher the conflict, the better remembrance than congruent noises. This is because increased selective attention resulting from incongruent stimuli gives the brain an encoding benefit, as explained by Panteleeva et al. (2021).

The study intends to investigate memory and learning and the impacts of distractions on information retention. In addition, it will examine the effects of congruent sounds and incongruent sounds on the brain’s capacity to process and retain information, and whether it works better on lower or higher conflict from background sounds. This study is crucial as it focuses on understanding the impacts of congruent and incongruent background sounds on memory. The study will prove the hypothesis that the brain retains information better under incongruent, high conflict sounds than when exposed to congruent, low conflict sounds.

Material and Methods


This study used an independent groups design. The independent variable was congruent and incongruent sounds. While the dependent variable in the study was memory retention, in the form of the number of correct answers on the true or false quiz.


The study sample consisted of 10 participants ages ranging from 20 to 73 years old (M = 45.80, SD = 18.43). Fifty percent, or 5 participants were female, and the other fifty percent or 5 participants, were male. The majority of, or 5 participants were Caucasian (50%), followed by African American or Black and Hispanic, 2 participants (both at 20%), and then Asian American, 1 participant (10%). All participants were able to read, write, and speak English proficiently. Additionally, the sample was selected from a group available to the researcher. 


The study first utilized a seven-minute video titled “How to Take Care of a Puppy: Bringing a Puppy Home.” Secondly, the study required two different sounds played in the background during the “how-to” video; 20 congruent sounds and 20 incongruent sounds. See Appendix B for the two lists of sounds. Lastly, the study utilized a quiz made up of 20 true or false questions based on the information discussed in the video, see Appendix C. Both groups will take an identical quiz after watching the video.


First, all 10 participants joined the experiment virtually via Zoom. Then the researcher shared a link for the consent form via Google Forms and read over the form in its entirety with the group. Next, each participant signed the form and fill out the demographic section via Google Forms. The researcher then explained the experiment in further detail; they were instructed on their role and what they had to do. Finally, the researcher provided time for any questions the participants had, and the researcher answered them.

At this time, the participants were randomly separated into two groups using a randomized numbering program. Group A and Group B; each group had five participants. Group B was placed in the waiting room on Zoom, and the experiment with Group A continued. First, the researcher played the “How to Take Care of a Puppy: Bringing a Puppy Home” video. As the video played, the researcher started to play the congruent sounds in the background, and they continued throughout the video. Once the video was completed, the researcher screen shared the true or false quiz and instructed the participants to record their answers on paper. When the participants finished the quiz, the researcher shared the correct answers and asked the participants to count the number of correct answers. They were then referred back to their Google Form and filled in their answer in the corresponding spot for Group A. Group A was placed in the waiting room on Zoom, and the group was brought back. The experiment with Group B continued. The researcher again played the “How to Take Care of a Puppy: Bringing a Puppy Home” video. As the video played, the researcher started to play the incongruent sounds in the background, continuing throughout the video. Once the video was completed, the researcher screen shared the true or false quiz again and instructed the participants to record their answers on paper. When the participants finished the quiz, the researcher shared the correct answers and asked the participants to count the number of correct answers. They were referred back to their Google Form and fill in their answer in the corresponding spot for Group B. Afterward, the participants in Group A rejoined the Group B participants on the zoom call. Lastly, all ten participants were instructed to read over the final section of the Google Form, the debriefing, sign, and submit the Google Form to the researcher.


An independent-samples t-test was conducted to determine if there was a difference between congruent and incongruent sounds on memory. Results indicated a statistically significant difference between the two groups, congruent sounds (M = 10.40, SD = 2.61) and incongruent sounds (M = 15.20, SD = 2.39), t(8) = -3.04, p = .016. Therefore, the hypothesis that incongruent sounds have more effect on memory than congruent sounds is supported.


Congruent sounds matched the word in the sentence, and incongruent sounds were sounds that did not match the word in the sentence. This study found that incongruent sounds had a greater effect on memory than congruent sounds. At the same time, people performed tasks like reading or writing in a noisy environment than when they were doing these tasks in a quiet environment. If you are trying to remember something while listening to music or other distracting sounds around you, try turning off any music (Curtis and D’Esposito, 2003). ThD’Espositoof the study showed a significant difference between the two groups. The researchers found that congruent sounds have more effect on memory than incongruent sounds. This can be explained by the fact that congruent sounds are familiar to us, and we have heard them before, so they do not distract us from our task. However, incongruent sounds are unfamiliar, and we must pay attention to what they are saying to understand them.

The researchers also found no difference between congruent and incongruent sounds in their ability to increase or decrease learning (Panteleeva et al., 2021). This could be because both groups were unfamiliar with each other’s language, and others had difficulty communicating, which frustrated both groups. Less learning occurred due to this frustration. These findings are consistent with previous research done by Cozby and Bates (2018), who found that learners remember more when they are provided with congruent sounds than incongruent ones. The researchers suggest that this may be because the congruent sounds were more familiar and easier to process.

In contrast, the incongruent sounds were unfamiliar and more difficult to process. The researchers also suggest that because of the complexity of processing incongruent information, learners are more likely to forget it. Finally, the researchers suggest that high-level learners would be more likely to remember congruently than low-level learners because their attention would be focused on their goal rather than processing background music (Rosner & Milliken, 2015). This seems reasonable as we all know it feels like to be distracted by music in a bar or café.

Implications for Future Research

This study has implications for future research in several ways. First, it demonstrates the differences between congruent and incongruent sounds and their effects on memory. This suggests that future experiments should replicate these results using different sounds and materials to test whether this finding applies across different situations (Damjanovic and Kawalec, 2021). Second, this study also provides evidence that even when you are not trying to memorize something, your mind still stores information about what is happening around you at any given time. For example, suppose someone is talking about their favorite sports team while studying for an exam and later on during the exam (McGaugh, Cahill, and Roozendaal, 1996). If you hear them talking about something else entirely, like pets or food, you may recall that. Therefore, future research should explore whether different sounds affect memory performance differently depending on how many things one needs to focus on at once and how difficult those things are to do simultaneously (if two tasks require different parts of your brain).


Almadori, E., Mastroberardino, S., Botta, F., Brunetti, R., Lupiáñez, J., Spence, C., & Santangelo, V. (2021). Crossmodal Semantic Congruence Interacts with Object Contextual Consistency in Complex Visual Scenes to Enhance Short-Term Memory Performance. Brain sciences, 11(9), 1206.

Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K. W., & Spence, J. T. The psychology of learning and motivation (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Cozby, P. C., & Bates, S. (2018). Methods in behavioral research. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Curtis, C. E., & D’Esposito, M. (2003). Persistent activity in the prefrontal cortex during working memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(9), 415–423.

Damjanovic, L., & Kawalec, A. (2021). The role of music-induced emotions on recognition memory of filmed events. Psychology of Music, 030573562110333.

Fortin, N. J., Agster, K. L., & Eichenbaum, H. B. (2002). The critical role of the hippocampus in memory for sequences of events. Nature Neuroscience, 5(5), 458–462.

Gupta, A., Singh, M. P., & Sisodia, S. S. (2018). A review on learning and memory. Journal of Drug Delivery and Therapeutics, 8(2), 153-157.

Lachman, R., Lachman, J. L., & Butterfield, E. C. (2015). Cognitive psychology and information processing: An introduction. Psychology Press.

Lyxell, B., & Rönnberg, J. (2003). The effects of background noise and working memory capacity on speechreading performance. Scandinavian Audiology, 22(2), 67-70.

McGaugh, J. L., Cahill, L., & Roozendaal, B. (1996). Involvement of the amygdala in memory storage: Interaction with other brain systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 93(24), 13508–13514.

Monteiro, R., Tomé, D., Neves, P., Silva, D., & Rodrigues, M. A. (2018). The interactive effect of occupational noise on attention and short-term memory: A pilot study. Noise & Health, 20(96), 190.

Panteleeva, Y., Courvoisier, D. S., Glowinski, D., Grandjean, D. M., & Ceschi, G. (2021). Effects of emotionally incongruent musical excerpts on memory retrieval. Psychology of Music, 03057356211034571.

Patterson, L., & Kahan, T. A. (2022). Is the alerting-congruency interaction that is seen in experiments with stimulus-response motor associations moderated by a concurrent working-memory load? Acta Psychologica, 225, 103541.

Ptok, M. J., Thomson, S. J., Humphreys, K. R., & Watter, S. (2019). Congruency encoding effects on recognition memory: A stage-specific account of desirable difficulty. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 858.

Rosner, T. M., & Milliken, B. (2015). Congruency effects on recognition memory: A context effect. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale, 69(2), 206.

Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. (2020). Psychology 2e. Amsterdam University Press.

Sörqvist, P. (2015). On the interpretation of the effects of noise on cognitive performance: the fallacy of confusing the definition of an effect with the explanation. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 754.

Vachon, F., Labonté, K., & Marsh, J. E. (2017). Attentional capture by strange sounds: A noncontingent form of auditory distraction? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(4), 622–634.

Vo, K. D., Siqi-Liu, A., Chaire, A., Li, S., Demeter, E., Egner, T., & Woldorff, M. G. (2021). Neural Dynamics of Conflict Control in Working Memory. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 33(10), 2079-2092.

Xie, M., Liu, Z., & Guo, C. (2022). Evidence from ERPs is the effect of the congruity of emotional contexts at encoding on source memory. International Journal of Psychophysiology.

Appendix A


Bucks County Community College 


The Effects of Congruent and Incongruent Sounds in the Background on Memory


Corinna Fake


You are being asked to participate in a study regarding incongruent and congruent sounds on memory. This study aims to examine whether or not background sounds affect memory.


The study will take roughly 15 minutes. Participants will be asked to watch a short “how-to” video and answer 20 true or false questions.


There are no know risks to partake in this study. Potential benefits include becoming more knowledgeable about background noise and memory and the information from the “how-to” video.


Participants’ identities will be kept confidential. Each participant will receive a participant identification number.

● Participation in the study is entirely voluntary.

● Participants may withdraw their participation at any time.

● No compensation will be given for this study. 

Participants may contact the researcher by email at the contact information listed below for any questions or concerns. 

By signing below, you are indicating that you have read and fully understand the contents of this informed consent form and agree to participate in this study. 

PARTICIPANT’S SIGNATURE_______________________________________DATE___________________ 



Appendix B

Word List

List of Congruent Sounds

 Dryer Running

Car horn

Ice dropping in the freezer

TV playing

Cars passing by outside

Birds chirping

Floors creaking

Knocking at door

Door closing

Oven door closing

Smoking detector battery alert

Sink running

Text alert


Toilet Flushing


Soda can opening

Wind Chime

Shower running

Keyboard Clicks

List of Incongruent Sounds


Elephant Trumpet

Cars Crashing

Train Whistle




Boat horn

Dinosaur Rawr


Bomb ticking

Crowd Cheering

Dolphin Whistles

Police Siren



Nails on Chalkboard

Obnoxious Laughing

Cows Moo



Appendix C

True or False Quiz

  1. The first supply you need is premium pet food. (True)
  2. You should have your puppy’s name and contact information on the puppy’s ID tag. (True)
  3. The leash should be 8 feet long. (False)
  4. Raising a puppy is much like caring for an older child. (False)
  5. You should prepare well in advance for the arrival of your new puppy. (True)
  6. Viewing the world your dog will live in helps prepare. (True)
  7. An exercise pen is not helpful if you have a busy schedule. (False)
  8. When in the car, a puppy should be in a crate. (True)
  9. It’s best to introduce a new puppy when everyone in the home is present. (False)
  10. Before going into the house for the first time, take the puppy to his future potty spot. (True)
  11. Puppies can be treated the same as adult dogs. (False)
  12. Puppies need constant supervision. (True)
  13. How you interact with your puppy at first helps with future socialization. (True)
  14. You should not spend any extra time with your new puppy. (False)
  15. Puppies need to be acclimated to their new home. (True)
  16. You should not ask for help from dog walkers or a neighbor. (False)
  17. As your dog is potty training, he should go outside regularly. (True)
  18. You should be on the lookout for potty signs. (True)
  19. Puppies have to go to the bathroom approximately two hours after eating or drinking. (False)
  20. It is helpful to establish a routine with your new puppy. (True)
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