Shadowing (Psychology): Definition and Examples

shadowing in psychology definition and examples, explained below

Shadowing in psychology is a method to study a person’s attention skills. It provides insight into a participant’s selective attention, divided attention, intentional blindness, auditory processing speed, and working memory.

It involves exposing a participant to several several stimuli simultaneously in order to track and measure their ability to pay attention to one stimulus and process it, to the exclusion of others.

Generally, it will involve asking the participant to repeating information immediately, such as asking an interpreter to interpret someone’s speech into another language at real-life speed. At other times, it will involve asking someone to attempt to do two tasks at once (like texting and driving on a controlled track) to study the effects on road safety.

Another common example of shadowing is testing a person’s cognitive and attentional skills by asking them to repeat a message word-for-word in real-time while other stimuli (such as music or background speech) are vying for the participant’s attention.

Shadowing Definition

The original shadowing task involved paced audio tracking. Lambert (1992) defined it as:

“…a paced, auditory tracking task which involves the immediate vocalization of auditorily presented stimuli” (p. 266).

In later studies, the method was altered slightly to include performing other tasks simultaneously.

The original shadowing experimental procedure and similar methodologies have been used to study a wide range of cognitive phenomena.

In particular, the shadowing procedure has been used to examine how mobile phone use affects driving (Kaplan, et al., 2015), to train language translators (Lambert, 1992), and in second language instruction (Martinsen et al., 2017).

A modified version of the shadowing procedure has been used to study selective attention. This includes examining how mobile phone use effects learning outcomes (Kuznekoff & Titsworth, 2013), or pedestrian behavior such as crossing the street (Hatfield & Murphy, 2007).

Origins of Shadowing

The shadowing technique was designed to study speech perception and speech production processes in the late 1950s (Pickett, 1985).

The research was conducted by the Leningrad School of Phonology, founded by Ludmilla Chistovich and her husband Valerij Kozhevnikov.

The research involved placing an artificial palate in the research participant’s mouth. When the participant initiates speech production, the tongue makes contact with the palate, which then serves as a measure of reaction time between hearing speech and producing speech.

Shadowing vs. Dichotic Listening Task

The shadowing procedure and dichotic listening task are very similar. They both involve the presentation of an auditory stimulus while being tasked with a secondary requirement.

For example, a common use of shadowing is in the study of mobile phone use and driving. Participants are asked to repeat or listen to the content of a message while performing a task such as driving in a simulator.

In this context, shadowing is used to study divided attention. In divided attention, the individual must juggle their cognitive resources between two or more tasks.

In dichotic listening paradigms, sometimes the research goal is to examine selective attention. Although there is a lot of auditory and visual stimuli occurring simultaneously in the environment, human beings are able to ignore a majority of that stimuli and only focus on specific features (i.e., selective attention).

Participants are instructed to attend to one message while ignoring other stimuli being presented simultaneously. 

At the end of the procedure, participants are queried regarding aspects of both messages.

The most famous example of this procedure in studying selective attention comes from Cherry (1953), in which the term “cocktail party effect” originated.

“How do we recognize what one person is saying when others are speaking at the same time (the “cocktail party problem”)?” (pp. 975-976).

The dichotic listening task has also been used to study language processing in dyslexic children and auditory hallucinations in schizophrenia (Hugdahl, 2009), as well as cerebral language lateralization in monolingual and bilingual adults (Hull & Vaid, 2006).

Shadowing Examples

  • In the Study of Driving: Researchers use a driving simulator to examine the effects of divided attention. The participant drives through a simulated course while listening to auditory stimuli. The simulator presents various obstacles and dangers and the researchers gauge the effects of distraction on driving behavior.
  • In the Study of Speech Mechanisms: Research participants are instructed to perform a shadowing exercise while scientists scan their brain for neural activity. This allows the researchers to identify key areas of the brain involved in speech processing and production.
  • To Teach L2 Phrases and Sentences: Students studying a foreign language are asked to listen and repeat what the teacher says. This helps students memorize key phrases and sentences as a group and makes instruction efficient.
  • In Training Translators: Aspiring interpreters practice their skills by listening to a speech in one language and simultaneously translating what is being said to a second language.
  • In the Study of Selective Attention: Researchers use speech shadowing to examine the cognitive capacity of a listener and their ability to filter out one message while paying exclusive attention to another message.   
  • To Improve Intonation of L2 Learners: Speech shadowing can be used to help second language learners improve their intonation. By repeating the pitch and rhythm of recorded messages by a native speaker, non-native speakers can learn to mimic the speech patterns of native speakers.
  • Effect on Learning: The cognitive demands of shadowing is analogous to students paying attention to their mobile phones during classroom instruction. The divided attention can disrupt lecture comprehension and prevent deep processing of content.
  • Affect on Crossing the Street: Results of shadowing research and selective attention indicate that smartphone use affects pedestrian crossing behavior. Use reduces situation awareness and increases unsafe behavior.
  • Multi-tasking: Performing numerous tasks simultaneously involve similar cognitive processes that are engaged in shadowing while performing a secondary task. For example, talking on the phone with a client while checking and responding to emails at the same time. 
  • In Real-Life Driving: When a parent has to transport a small group of noisy children to soccer practice, music lessons, and a friend’s birthday party, while at the same time fielding a call from their spouse, the cognitive demands can be overwhelming.  

Applications of Shadowing

1. In Language Instruction

Learning a second language as an adult is difficult and time-consuming. There are hundreds of techniques available for use by instructors, one of them involving shadowing.

Hsieh et al. (2013) used shadowing to help Taiwanese students improve their pronunciation, fluency, and intonation of English:

“…the shadowing technique contributed to better overall pronunciation performance than the repetition technique” (p. 58).

Salim et al. (2020) also demonstrated improved pronunciation of seventh grade Indonesian students.

Shadowing has also been applied to improve listening comprehension skills in Japanese (Kato, 2009; Tamai, 1997) and Taiwanese students (Lin, 2009, as reported in Hamada, 2019).     

Algerian, Filipino, Indonesian and South American students have also benefited from shadowing (Manseur, 2015; Hamzar, 2014; Ginting, 2019).

Hamada (2019) concludes that the accumulated research suggests that “beginner level learners should start from standard shadowing for listening. Once learners achieve the upper-intermediate or advanced level, they are ready for shadowing for speaking” (p. 391).

2. In the Study of Psycholinguistics

Shadowing has also been used in the study of psycholinguistics and identify specific neural mechanisms involved in speech processing and production (Marslen-Wilson, 1985).

In a typical procedure, a research participant is tasked with repeating the words of a recorded message.

The lag between hearing the words presented and repeating them is measured and used as an index of how long it takes for the brain to process and produce speech.

Research conducted by Peschke et al. (2009) and Hickok and Poeppel (2004), using fMRI neuroimaging, demonstrated that shadowing occurs in an area of the brain that links the auditory and motor regions with Broca’s area.

3. In the Study of Distracted Driving

Shadowing has also been used to study dual-task costs associated with driving while using a mobile phone, using both driving simulators and real-world driving (Alm & Nilsson, 1995; McKnight & McKnight, 1993).

Redelmeier and Tibshirani (1997) conducted an epidemiological study demonstrating that using a mobile phone resulted in a fourfold risk of an accident, which is a level of risk similar to driving while legally intoxicated (Vinson et al., 1995).

Moreover, Spence and Read found that driving is less effected when auditory and visual stimuli emanate from similar spatial locations.

This means that listening to speech coming from behind the driver, while attending to visual cues on the road (which are in front), can pose greater risk.

Strayer and Johnston (2001), using driver simulation, found that being engaged in a cell-phone conversation resulted in missing “twice as many simulated traffic signals as when they were not talking on the cell phone” (p. 465).

Moreover, errors “increased when participants used the cell phone to perform an active, attention-demanding word-generation task” (p. 465).  

In summary, detailed examination of the effects of driving and mobile phone use have suggested that attentional demands and limited cognitive capacity are the underlying factors that impair driving (Spence & Read, 2003).


Shadowing is a research technique that was originally designed to study speech processing and production. It has also been used to study selective attention and the effects of divided attention on task performance.

The procedure involves asking a research participant to reproduce the speech heard in a recorded message.

Researchers have employed this methodology to delineate areas of the brain involved in the processing and production of speech, examine the effects of mobile phone use on driving, and improve the listening skills and pronunciation of L2 learners.

Findings of these lines of research also have implications for student performance in the classroom and pedestrian behavior.


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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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