An integrated theory of attention and decision making in visual signal detection

Psychol Rev. 2009 Apr;116(2):283-317. doi: 10.1037/a0015156.


The simplest attentional task, detecting a cued stimulus in an otherwise empty visual field, produces complex patterns of performance. Attentional cues interact with backward masks and with spatial uncertainty, and there is a dissociation in the effects of these variables on accuracy and on response time. A computational theory of performance in this task is described. The theory links visual encoding, masking, spatial attention, visual short-term memory (VSTM), and perceptual decision making in an integrated dynamic framework. The theory assumes that decisions are made by a diffusion process driven by a neurally plausible, shunting VSTM. The VSTM trace encodes the transient outputs of early visual filters in a durable form that is preserved for the time needed to make a decision. Attention increases the efficiency of VSTM encoding, either by increasing the rate of trace formation or by reducing the delay before trace formation begins. The theory provides a detailed, quantitative account of attentional effects in spatial cuing tasks at the level of response accuracy and the response time distributions.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Attention* / physiology
  • Cues
  • Decision Making*
  • Humans
  • Psychological Theory
  • Reaction Time
  • Signal Detection, Psychological* / physiology
  • Visual Perception* / physiology