Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Experience-Dependent Attentional Tuning of Distractor Rejection

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Experience-Dependent Attentional Tuning of Distractor Rejection

Article excerpt

Published online: 13 June 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Irrelevant salient distractors often capture attention, but given a sufficiently specific search template, these salient items no longer capture attention. In the present experiments, we investigated whether specific target templates are sufficient to resist capture, or whether experience with the salient distractors is also necessary. To test this hypothesis, observers completed four blocks of trials, each with a different-colored irrelevant singleton present on half of the trials. Color singletons captured attention early within a block, but after sufficient experience with the irrelevant singletons, those singletons no longer captured attention in the second halves of the blocks. This result suggests that to resist capture, a specific target template must be accompanied by experience-dependent attentional tuning to distractor properties.

Keywords Attentional capture * Cognitive control * Attentional control * Learning

The world is filled with distractions, ranging from the abrupt appearance of an Internet pop-up ad to the sound of a coffee grinder at the local bistro. A primary purpose of attention is to restrict processing to items relevant to our current behavior and to minimize interference from irrelevant distractors. An important issue in the attentional-control literature has centered on the mechanisms of this restriction, with two rival hypotheses emerging to explain when attention is captured by distracting information. One account proposes that attention is stimulus-driven and that salient distractors capture attention irrespective of one's goals or attentional set (Theeuwes, 1992, 2010). Another account proposes that attention is driven by one's goals and that attentional capture is contingent on one's attentional set; only distractors matching a current attentional set will capture attention (e.g., Folk, Remington, & Johnston, 1992). Against this backdrop, much of the past 20 years of research has focused on distinguishing stimulus-driven capture from contingent capture, with a focus on which of these two modes of selection is the "default" mode of attention (Kawahara, 2010).

Strong evidence for stimulus-driven capture has come from the additional-singleton paradigm (Theeuwes, 1992). In this task, observers search for a shape singleton among homogeneous distractors (e.g., a circle among diamonds) and report the orientation of a line that appears inside the target shape. On half of the trials, one of the distractors is a different color, making it a salient singleton distractor. Because the target is never the color singleton, an observer with perfect goal-driven control has no reason to attend to this additional singleton, and the presence of the singleton should not slow response times (RTs) to the target. However, the presence of an irrelevant color singleton does slow RTs to the target (see Theeuwes, 2010, for an extensive review). Because the color singleton is irrelevant to an observer's goal of finding the shape singleton, slowed RTs when the color singleton is present can be interpreted as stimulus-driven attentional capture.

There are limits to stimulus-driven capture, however. One important retort to results from the additional-singleton paradigm came from Bacon and Egeth (1994), who demonstrated that a salient distractor would not capture attention when observers searched for a specific target, not simply a shape singleton target. Specifically, when searching for a target among heterogeneous distractors (e.g., a circle among squares, diamonds, and triangles), an irrelevant color singleton no longer captures attention. Bacon and Egeth reasoned that the specificity of the search template was critical in determining capture. When searching for a shape singleton, observers may adopt a nonspecific target configuration and search for any unique item-that is, any singleton. This so-called singleton detection mode (Pashler, 1988) would allow for fast detection of a singleton target, but would also render an observer vulnerable to capture by an irrelevant color singleton. …

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