Diluting the burden of load: perceptual load effects are simply dilution effects

J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2010 Dec;36(6):1645-56. doi: 10.1037/a0018172.


The substantial distractor interference obtained for small displays when the target appears alone is reduced in large displays when the target is embedded among neutral letters. This finding has been interpreted as reflecting low-load and high-load processing, respectively, thereby supporting the theory of perceptual load (Lavie & Tsal, 1994). However, a possible alternative interpretation of this effect is that the distractor is similarly processed in both displays, yet its interference in the large ones is diluted by the presence of the neutral letters. We separated the effects of load and dilution by introducing dilution displays. They contained as many letters as the high-load displays but were clearly distinguished from the target, thus allowing for a low-load processing mode. Distractor interference obtained under both the low-load and high-load conditions disappeared under the dilution condition. Hence, the display size effect traditionally misattributed to perceptual load is fully accounted for by dilution. Furthermore, when dilution is controlled for, it is high load not low load producing greater interference.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Color Perception*
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Field Dependence-Independence*
  • Generalization, Psychological
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Orientation
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Reaction Time