Multielement visual tracking: attention and perceptual organization

Cogn Psychol. 1992 Jul;24(3):295-340. doi: 10.1016/0010-0285(92)90010-y.


Two types of theories have been advanced to account for how attention is allocated in performing goal-directed visual tasks. According to location-based theories, visual attention is allocated to spatial locations in the image; according to object-based theories, attention is allocated to perceptual objects. Evidence for the latter view comes from experiments demonstrating the importance of perceptual grouping in selective-attention tasks. This article provides further evidence concerning the importance of perceptual organization in attending to objects. In seven experiments, observers tracked multiple randomly moving visual elements under a variety of conditions. Ten elements moved continuously about the display for several seconds; one to five of them were designated as targets before movement initiation. At the end of movement, one element was highlighted, and subjects indicated whether or not it was a target. The ease with which the elements in the target set could be perceptually grouped was systematically manipulated. In Experiments 1-3, factors that influenced the initial formation of a perceptual group were manipulated; this affected performance, but only early in practice. In Experiments 4-7, factors that influenced the maintenance of a perceptual group during motion were manipulated; this affected performance throughout practice. The results suggest that observers spontaneously grouped the target elements and directed attention toward this coherent but nonrigid virtual object. This supports object-based theories of attention and demonstrates that perceptual grouping, which is usually conceived of as a purely stimulus-driven process, can also be governed by goal-directed mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Female
  • Form Perception
  • Humans
  • Imagination
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Motion Perception
  • Orientation
  • Practice, Psychological
  • Space Perception
  • Visual Perception*