Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Does Response Interference Depend on the Subjective Visibility of Flanker Distractors?

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Does Response Interference Depend on the Subjective Visibility of Flanker Distractors?

Article excerpt

Published online: 4 April 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Response interference (or response conflict) refers to the phenomenon whereby response times to a target stimulus are longer in the presence of distractor stimuli that indicate contrary motor responses. Response interference has been observed even when the distractor stimuli cannot be discriminated above chance levels. These results raise the question of whether response interference might be driven automatically by the physical distractor stimuli, independently of one's subjective perception of the distractors. Using a modified version of the Eriksen flanker task, we applied metacontrast masks to the flanker stimuli and measured their subjective visibility after each trial. We found converging lines of evidence that the subjective perception of flankers contributed to response interference, over and above the contribution of automatic processing of the stimulus itself. A factorial analysis revealed that the objective, physical congruency of target and flankers and the subjective, perceptual congruency of target and flankers make additive, noninteracting contributions to target response interference, suggesting that the two interference effects originate from independent levels or stages of cognitive processing.

Keywords Cognitive control and automaticity . Visual awareness . Stimulus control

The Eriksen flanker task (Eriksen & Schultz 1979; Stins, Polderman, Boomsma, & de Geus, 2007) is a standard behavioral paradigm for studying response interference and cognitive control. In one standard version of the task, participants respond to a target stimulus (e.g., an arrow) in the middle of the screen. The central target stimulus is surrounded by adjacent stimuli ("flankers"). The flanker stimuli can either indicate the same motor response as the central stimulus (congruent), or they can indicate the opposite response (incongruent). The task is designed to induce response interference when the flankers are incongruent with the target. Typically, under stimulus incongruency, target identification is slower and more error prone. This kind of response inference is also thought to induce conflict signals in the brain, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, including the dorsolateral prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex (Botvinick, Cohen, & Carter, 2004).

Intuitively, one might think that response interference under target-flanker incongruency is due to the fact that the flankers are perceived to be incongruent with the central target stimulus. However, interestingly, Schwarz and Mecklinger (1995) found that even when the flankers cannot be discriminated at above-chance levels due to backward masking, incongruency between the flankers and the target stimulus can still lead to response interference.

This is in line with research in motor priming (Eimer & Schlaghecken, 2003; Kouider & Dehaene, 2007; Neumann & Klotz, 1994; Sumner & Husain, 2008; Van den Bussche, Van den Noortgate, & Reynvoet, 2009), in which participants give a motor response to a target stimulus, which is often preceded by a brief presentation of a congruent or an incongruent stimulus (the "prime"). Again, the standard finding is that participants are typically slower and less accurate when the prime is incongruent with the target stimulus. However, it has been shown that even when the prime is not discriminable, stimulus incongruency can still have an effect (Eimer & Schlaghecken, 2002; Kouider & Dehaene, 2007; Neumann & Klotz, 1994; Sumner & Husain, 2008). In Vorberg, Mattler, Heinecke, Schmidt, and Schwarzbach's (2003) experiment, it was even shown that the magnitude of the priming effect did not depend on the discriminability of the prime.

These results seem to afford two different interpretations. One possible account is that response interference does not depend on the manner in which distractor stimuli are subjectively perceived, but only on automatic processing of the distractors' physical identity. …

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