Learning What to Expect: Context-Specific Control over Intertrial Priming Effects in Singleton Search

By Thomson, David R.; D'Ascenzo, Michael et al. | Memory & Cognition, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Learning What to Expect: Context-Specific Control over Intertrial Priming Effects in Singleton Search


Thomson, David R., D'Ascenzo, Michael, Milliken, Bruce, Memory & Cognition


Published online: 22 December 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract The present study explored the degree to which repetition effects in color pop-out search from trial n - 1 to trial n are subject to the attentional control settings of the observer. Intertrial priming effects were compared between two contexts that differed in terms of the utility of immediate prior experience for current performance; in one context, the target was likely to repeat, and in the other context, the target was likely to alternate from one trial to the next. Across two experiments, priming of pop-out (PoP) effects (Malkjovic & Nakayama; Memory & Cognition 22:657-672, 1994) were modulated in accord with the probability of target color repetition in a given trial context. Importantly, this modulation persisted when trial history preceding trial n - 1 was controlled for. Furthermore, this control over PoP seems not to derive from explicit strategies and is not an artifact of randomly occurring strings of same-target trials. We argue that priming effects in singleton search fromtrial n - 1 to trial n are subject to a form of implicit top-down control.

Keywords Attention . Memory . Visual search

Introduction

Searching for an item in our perceptual environment that differs from all other items in color, size, motion, or orientation is a tremendously easy task. In fact, it seems as though we do not search for such items at all but, rather, as though the focus of our attention is "grabbed" by them automatically. Nonetheless, although such searches seem effortless, the time taken to complete them can be greatly affected by recent prior experiences. For example, Malkjovic and Nakayama (1994) showed that response times (RTs) in a color pop-out search task (first used by Bravo&Nakayama, 1992) are significantly shorterwhen the color of the target on the current trial repeats from the previous trial, relative to when it switches-the now well-known priming of pop-out (PoP) effect. Although there has been much work in recent years devoted to understanding the properties and mechanisms that underlie PoP, whether or not expectation concerning the upcoming target color can affect the magnitude of PoP has yet to be resolved definitively. The present study demonstrates that priming effects in simple pop-out search can indeed be affected by the expectations of the observer.

To explore the effect of expectation on PoP effects, we must first define what we mean by expectation. Although expectation often refers to explicit and conscious knowledge that is used strategically to prepare for a probable future event, in the present work, we use the term more broadly to refer to any sense in which prior experience results in a state of preparedness for a probable future event, whether that preparation is implicit or explicit. In fact, one could easily argue that many forms of expectation are entirely implicit, such as the expectations that the perceptual-motor system generates during the learning of complex sequences (see Nissen & Bullemer, 1987). There is also precedent in the visual search literature for discussing the effects of knowledge (sometimes referred to as top-down processes) that are implicit in nature. For example, the fact that priming effects are, by definition, influences on behavior that are outside the constraints of current perception has led some researchers to posit that implicit, yet top-down, control mechanisms contribute to (or even drive) priming effects (Geyer & Muller, 2009; Wolfe, Butcher, Lee, & Hyle, 2003). We therefore seek to examine the role of expectations on PoP effects, regardless of whether these expectations develop consciously or not.

Although it may appear at face value to be a relatively simple issue, the role of expectation in singleton search is not yet clear, since the researchers who have explored this issue have arrived at somewhat different conclusions. The first attempt to manipulate expectations in color pop-out search was made by Malkjovic and Nakayama (1994, Experiment 2). …

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