Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Using Response Time Distributions to Examine Top-Down Influences on Attentional Capture

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Using Response Time Distributions to Examine Top-Down Influences on Attentional Capture

Article excerpt

Published online: 14 November 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Three experiments examined contingent attentional capture, which is the finding that cuing effects are larger when cues are perceptually similar to a target than when they are dissimilar to the target. This study also analyzed response times (RTs) in terms of the underlying distributions for valid cues and invalid cues. Specifically, an ex-Gaussian analysis and a vincentile analysis examined the influence of top-down attentional control settings on the shiftand skew of RT distributions and how the shiftand the skew contributed to the cuing effects in the mean RTs. The results showed that cue/target similarity influenced the size of cuing effects. The RT distribution analyses showed that the cuing effects reflected only a shifting effect, not a skewing effect, in the RT distribution between valid cues and invalid cues. That is, top-down attentional controlmoderated the cuing effects in themean RTs through distribution shifting, not distribution skewing. The results support the contingent orienting hypothesis (Folk, Remington, & Johnston, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 18, 1030-1044, 1992) over the attentional disengagement account (Theeuwes, Atchley, & Kramer, 2000) as an explanation for when top-down attentional settings influence the selection of salient stimuli.

Keywords Attentional capture * Attentional control * Response time distribution

How and when do top-down settings and bottom-up signals moderate the allocation of attention toward salient items? Some propose that salient items receive priority and are selected in a stimulus-driven manner (e.g., Theeuwes, 1992, 1994, 2010; Yantis, 1993, 2000; Yantis & Egeth, 1999). Others propose that salient items are selected only if they are relevant to current goals (e.g., Folk, Remington, & Johnston, 1992; Folk, Remington, & Wright, 1994). Although top-down modulation of attention is well-established, the issue of how and when this modulation occurs is contested. Part of the issue may be the reliance on measures of central tendency of behavioral responses-namely, mean response times (MRT)-to infer when top-down modulation occurs. Results of studies using differences in MRT (or lack thereof) between conditions do not unambiguously support one side of the debate. This study went beyond using measures of central tendency by examining top-down modulation of the shiftand skew of RT distributions in attentional capture tasks. Identifying how top-down control influences RT distributions provided insight as to when top-down control modulates the selection of salient stimuli.

Evidence that salient items are selected only if they are featurally relevant comes from Folk et al. (1992), in which a color cue or onset cue appeared 150 ms prior to a target that was an onset singleton for some subjects and a color singleton for others. Folk et al. (1992) hypothesized that subjects would enter the target-defining feature into an attentional set that would moderate shifting attention toward the cues. Specifically, cues that shared a feature with the attentional set would capture attention, but cues that did not share a feature with the attentional set would not. Consistent with this contingent orienting hypothesis, only color cues captured attention in the color target group, and only onset cues captured attention in the onset target group. Thus, bottom-up signals interacted with top-down settings so that only salient items that were relevant to the attentional set captured attention. (Hereafter, target relevant refers to cues that match the attentional set, and target irrelevant refers to cues that do not match the attentional set.)

Much research has revealed an interaction between topdown settings and bottom-up signals on the control of attention (e.g., Anderson & Folk, 2010; Ansorge & Heumann, 2003; Folk & Remington, 1998, 2006, 2008; Folk et al. …

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