Involuntary attentional capture by abrupt onsets

Percept Psychophys. 1992 Mar;51(3):279-90. doi: 10.3758/bf03212254.


The extent to which brief abrupt-onset visual stimuli involuntarily capture spatial attention was examined in five experiments. The paradigm used was intended to maximize the opportunity and incentive for subjects to ignore abrupt-onset distractor stimuli in nontarget locations. Subjects made a speeded two-choice response to a target letter appearing in one of four boxes. An abrupt-onset visual stimulus, easily discriminable from the target, was flashed briefly prior to the presentation of a target. In separate blocks, the flash stimulus marked the box in which the target would subsequently appear (SAME), a different box (DIFF), fixation (CENTER), or all four boxes (ALL). Prior to each block, subjects were informed of the flash-target relationship. In all five experiments, response time was elevated in the DIFF, CENTER, and ALL conditions. The interference effect was larger for the DIFF condition and persisted for longer flash-target SOAs. These results suggest that, under appropriate conditions, spatial attention can be involuntarily drawn to abrupt-onset events despite the intention of subjects' to ignore them.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Discrimination Learning*
  • Humans
  • Mental Recall
  • Orientation*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Psychophysics
  • Reaction Time