A New Object Captures Attention-But Only When You Know It's New

By Chua, Fook K. | Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, May 2009 | Go to article overview

A New Object Captures Attention-But Only When You Know It's New


Chua, Fook K., Attention, Perception and Psychophysics


Two hypotheses have been advanced to explain why an object appearing suddenly in an empty location captures attention. According to the first hypothesis, the visual transients that accompany an abrupt onset automatically trigger attentional orienting toward the object. The second hypothesis claims that the visual system regards the onset as an advent of a new object, and the latter's novelty causes attention to be drawn toward it. To discriminate between these two accounts, Franconeri, Hollingworth, and Simons (2005) introduced a procedure in which an object was added to the display but, crucially, the object's onset transients were concealed. Their results showed that this additional object failed to capture attention, which they interpreted as evidence against the new-object hypothesis. But the Franconeri et al. procedure could somehow have impeded the visual system from identifying the additional object as new. In three experiments, Franconeri et al.'s results were first replicated and extended. Further, it was shown that when the conditions facilitated the encoding of the locations of the old items, the new object did succeed in capturing attention.

The continuous stream of stimulation that the visual system receives generally contains more information than it can manage effectively. The visual scene may change, sometimes quite rapidly and unpredictably. Unless the information crucial to the organism's current goals is processed promptly, its survival may be compromised. A question of considerable interest is how the visual system prioritizes the information in the scene and orients its attentional mechanisms accordingly. This is the issue of attentional control.

Two modes of attentional control have been identified (e.g., Egeth & Yantis, 1997; Pashler, Johnston, & Ruthruff, 2001; Yantis, 1993a, 1998). In endogenous attention, control is applied in a top-down, goal-directed fashion. Here, the attentional spotlight is under the observer's control, and attention is focused where the immediate goals are best served. In exogenous attentional control, however, particular features of the environment determine where the spotlight is trained. The intentions of the observer are inconsequential here, and we say that attention is "captured." The focus of this report is attentional capture.

To the extent that attention may be captured, an immediate issue would be identifying those aspects of the stimulus that endow it with the capacity to capture attention. One proposal has been that an object that possesses an aspect not shared by the other objects in the field (a "singleton") would attract attention because its uniqueness, presumably, bears additional information. Folk, Remington, and their colleagues (Folk & Remington, 1998, 1999; Folk, Remington, & Johnston, 1992) claimed that attention is a strictly top-down control process, with the goals of the observer dictating which objects would be prioritized. In this view, a particular stimulus feature will gain the capacity to capture attention only if it has been programmed into the observer's attentional goal setting. Therefore, to demonstrate unambiguously that a particular stimulus feature is capable of exogenous control, the task must be configured in such a way that detecting this feature is excluded from the observer's current goals.

One such approach is Theeuwes's (1991) additionalsingleton paradigm. Here, two singletons are presented: One specifies the target location, and the other, additional one is entirely irrelevant to the task. Attending (endogenously) to this irrelevant singleton would hinder rather than help task performance, which presumably should compel the observer to suppress orienting toward it. The critical question is whether the observer's attention would still be drawn inexorably to this additional singleton, thus providing a demonstration of attentional capture. Theeuwes (1991) pitted a color singleton (the additional, irrelevant singleton) against a shape singleton (which enveloped the target). …

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