Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

The Long and the Short of Priming in Visual Search

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

The Long and the Short of Priming in Visual Search

Article excerpt

Published online: 2 April 2015

© The Author(s) 2015. This article is published with open access at

Abstract Memory affects visual search, as is particularly evident from findings that when target features are repeated from one trial to the next, selection is faster. Two views have emerged on the nature of the memory representations and mechanisms that cause these intertrial priming effects: independent feature weighting versus episodic retrieval of previous trials. Previous research has attempted to disentangle these views focusing on short term effects. Here, we illustrate that the episodic retrieval models make the unique prediction of long-term priming: biasing one target type will result in priming of this target type for a much longer time, well after the bias has disappeared. We demonstrate that such long-term priming is indeed found for the visual feature of color, but only in conjunction search and not in singleton search. Two follow-up experiments showed that it was the kind of search (conjunction versus singleton) and not the difficulty, that determined whether long-term priming occurred. Long term priming persisted unaltered for at least 200 trials, and could not be explained as the result of explicit strategy. We propose that episodic memory may affect search more consistently than previously thought, and that the mechanisms for intertrial priming may be qualitatively different for singleton and conjunction search.

Keywords Visual search · Priming · Long-term memory · Implicit memory


A powerful factor determining where we look and what we attend is where we have looked and what we have attended before. The effects of our previous overt and covert shifts of attention on our current ones are often investigated by comparing visual search in which targets must be found with either the same features as on previous trials, or with different features. When compared to feature switch trials, feature repetitions have been found to shorten response times (RT) and decrease the amount of errors (Maljkovic and Nakayama, 1994). In addition, repetitions cause shorter saccade latencies (Becker, 2008; McPeek et al., 1999) and bias target selection (Brascamp et al., 2011a; Meeter and Van der Stigchel, 2013). Interestingly, such repetition effects have been found to affect vision largely out of the observers control (Maljkovic and Nakayama, 1994; Huang et al., 2004; Hillstrom, 2000). Collectively, these effects are called intertrial priming.

A wealth of priming research over the past decades (Kristjánsson and Campana, 2010) has as of yet failed to yield consensus on its underlying mechanisms. The primary dichotomy (Thomson and Milliken, 2013) appears to be between the feature-weighting account of intertrial priming and the episodic retrieval account. The feature-weighting account entails that the processing of a trial enhances the activation of those visual features that identify the target, and in addition may suppresses distractor features. This activation effectively changes how these features are 'weighted' on the next trial, which yields repetition benefits on subsequent trials that will decay over time. The featureweighting view is intuitive, and the idea that trials can produce 'lingering' activity that affects subsequent performance is supported by several neurophysiological findings (Kristjánsson and Campana, 2010; Yeung et al., 2006;de Lange et al., 2013). Similarly, the idea that such weighting is subject to decay is in line with the observation that facilitation effects have been found to rapidly disappear over the course of some 5-8 trials (Maljkovic and Nakayama, 1994; Hillstrom, 2000), and that long intertrial intervals can attenuate or abolish priming effects (Maljkovic and Nakayama, 2000; Thomson and Milliken, 2012). Note that different properties of a search trial might independently contribute to priming effects: most notably, repetitions of the response, position, and target-defining feature on a search trial might independently produce repetition benefits or switch costs (Meeter and Olivers, 2006;Lamyet al. …

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