Sustaining visual attention in the face of distraction: a novel gradual-onset continuous performance task

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2013 Apr;75(3):426-39. doi: 10.3758/s13414-012-0413-x.


Sustained attention is a fundamental aspect of human cognition and has been widely studied in applied and clinical contexts. Despite a growing understanding of how attention varies throughout task performance, moment-to-moment fluctuations are often difficult to assess. In order to better characterize fluctuations in sustained visual attention, in the present study we employed a novel continuous performance task (CPT), the gradual-onset CPT (gradCPT). In the gradCPT, a central face stimulus gradually transitions between individuals at a constant rate (1,200 ms), and participants are instructed to respond to each male face but not to a rare target female face. In the distractor-present version, the background distractors consist of scene images, and in the distractor-absent condition, of phase-scrambled scene images. The results confirmed that the gradCPT taxes sustained attention, as vigilance decrements were observed over the task's 12-min duration: Participants made more commission errors and showed increasingly variable response latencies (RTs) over time. Participants' attentional states also fluctuated from moment to moment, with periods of higher RT variability being associated with increased likelihood of errors and greater speed-accuracy trade-offs. In addition, task performance was related to self-reported mindfulness and the propensity for attention lapses in everyday life. The gradCPT is a useful tool for studying both low- and high-frequency fluctuations in sustained visual attention and is sensitive to individual differences in attentional ability.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult