Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Breaking through the Attentional Window: Capture by Abrupt Onsets versus Color Singletons

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Breaking through the Attentional Window: Capture by Abrupt Onsets versus Color Singletons

Article excerpt

Published online: 18 July 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Theeuwes (Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 11:65-70, 2004) proposed that stimulus-driven capture occurs primarily for salient stimuli that fall within the observer's attentional window, such as when performing a parallel search. This proposal, which is supported by some studies, can explain many seemingly discrepant results in the literature. The present study tested this proposal using a modified precuing paradigm. Search mode was manipulated via target-distractor similarity in color space. In the parallel search condition, the orange target "popped out" from a set of distantly colored distractors (blue and green). In the serial search condition, the orange target was more difficult to find amongst a set of similarly colored distractors (yellow and red). In Experiments 1 and 2, cue validity effects for irrelevant-color singleton cues were greater under parallel than under serial search, at least partially replicating previous studies favoring the attentional-window account (e.g., Belopolsky, Zwaan, Theeuwes, & Kramer, Psychonomic Bulletin&Review14:934-938, 2007).We found the opposite pattern, however, for capture by abrupt onsets (Experiments 3 and 4), in which case capture effects were actually greater under serial search. In sum, parallel search appears to facilitate capture by color singletons, yet to inhibit capture by abrupt onsets.

Keywords Attentional capture . Visual search . Spatial attention

Sometimes, task-irrelevant information draws our attention. While driving, for example, a bright billboard advertisement might draw attention, seemingly against our will. Yet at other times, very salient information fails to capture our attention: A waving pedestrian (or, classically, a waving gorilla) may go unnoticed (Simons & Chabris, 1999). Indeed, one might wonder how a person distracted by every salient stimulus (e.g., flashing police beacons, brake lights, blinking crosswalk signs, or neon traffic cones) could possibly survive a single trip to the grocery store. These simple observations raise the question of how involuntary shifts of attention are guided. Can certain "super" stimuli capture our attention at any moment (bottom up)? Or are these shifts involuntary and yet, counterintuitively, driven by what we are looking for (top down)?

Research on attention capture has made great strides in identifying laboratory scenarios in which salient stimuli do and do not capture attention. However, opinions are still sharply divided about how to reconcile the puzzling empirical discrepancies from different paradigms and different types of salient stimuli. Theeuwes (2004, 2010) has proposed one promising reconciliation, in which stimulus-driven capture occurs only when objects are searched in parallel. This claim, if correct, would have important theoretical implications, as well as important practical implications for identifying realworld scenarios that leave an operator vulnerable to irrelevant capture. Although several findings have been suggestive (e.g., Belopolsky, Zwaan, Theeuwes, & Kramer, 2007; Schreij, Owens, & Theeuwes, 2008; Schreij, Theeuwes, & Olivers, 2010), this claim has not yet been thoroughly tested. For this article, therefore, we used a precuing paradigm to assess whether differences between search modes (parallel vs. serial) can actually explain the discrepant findings in the attentionalcapture literature. Before describing the specifics of our approach, we will first review previous evidence for capture by salient objects and the role of search mode.

Stimulus-driven versus goal-driven capture of attention

Stimulus-driven accounts of attentional capture have proposed that certain salient stimulus features guide attention, irrespective of the current goals. Feature singletons-stimuli with a unique feature appearing against a homogeneously featured background-for instance, are thought to be particularly salient, and are considered likely candidates for stimulus-driven capture. …

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