Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Effects of Bilateral Colour Cues on Visual Orienting: Revisiting William James' `Derived Attention'

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Effects of Bilateral Colour Cues on Visual Orienting: Revisiting William James' `Derived Attention'

Article excerpt

William James' proposal that the propensity of environmental objects to capture attention can be influenced by learning and experience was tested in a spatial cueing experiment. Participants made a simple detection response to targets that were preceded by bilateral colour change cues. During two training blocks of trials the location of the target was predicted by the nature of the peripheral colour change, but participants were not informed of this contingency. The effects of peripheral colour changes on attention were then assessed during a test block of trials in which there was no relationship between target location and the colour cues. Results showed that participants who remained unaware of the cue-target relationship nevertheless oriented attention rapidly towards the colour that had been associated with the target during the training phase. Implications of this finding for views of spatial attention are discussed, and it is concluded that William James' concept of `derived attention' deserves renewed consideration.

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Research on visual orienting has suggested that this can occur in two ways: either reflexively or under voluntary control (e.g. Jonides, 1981; Muller & Rabbit, 1989; Cheal, Lyon & Gottlob, 1994). The reflexive-voluntary distinction accords well with everyday intuitions concerning attention. For example, as I write these words, my attention is oriented, under voluntary control, to appropriate locations on the computer screen and keyboard. However, from time to time my attention may be captured involuntarily (reflexively) by salient events elsewhere in the visual field, as when a sparrow alights on the windowsill.

The distinction between reflexive and voluntary orienting also receives support from a substantial body of laboratory research. In an influential study, Jonides (1981) presented participants with two kinds of spatial cue. In one condition the cues were arrows presented in the centre of a visual display, indicating the likely location of an impending target object. In a second condition, participants were also presented with arrow cues, but in this case the cues were presented at a peripheral location, adjacent to the likely location of the target. In both cases Jonides compared response times for valid trials (where the target appeared at the cued location) with response times for invalid trials (where the target appeared at an uncued location). The difference between valid and invalid trials can be seen as an index of the extent to which participants had oriented their attention to the likely location of the target, in response to the information provided by the cue. Jonides observed different patterns of performance in the two conditions. Consistent with the idea that peripheral cues operate in a relatively automatic and reflexive manner, Jonides found that in the peripheral cueing condition, orienting effects were observed even when participants were instructed to ignore the cue; whereas participants did not orient in response to central cues when instructed to ignore them.

Speed of operation is another property which has been studied in investigations of the distinction between automatic-reflexive and voluntary processes. In general, automatic processes are thought to occur relatively rapidly, while voluntary processes have a slower time-course. In the context of visual attention, the time-course of orienting has been studied by varying the interval between onset of the cue and onset of the target object (the term stimulus onset asynchrony (SOA) is used to denote this delay). For example, Cheal and Lyon (1991) found that participants oriented very rapidly in response to peripheral cues. That is, clear differences between valid and invalid trials were observed with very brief (100ms) delays between cue and target. In contrast, orienting in response to central cues appeared to develop more slowly: valid-invalid differences reached a maximum with a delay of 300ms between cue and target onset. …

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