Visual perception is dramatically impaired when a peripheral target is embedded within clutter, a phenomenon known as visual crowding. Despite decades of study, the mechanisms underlying crowding remain a matter of debate. Feature pooling models assert that crowding results from a compulsory pooling (e.g., averaging) of target and distractor features. This view has been extraordinarily influential in recent years, so much so that crowding is typically regarded as synonymous with pooling. However, many demonstrations of feature pooling can also be accommodated by a probabilistic substitution model where observers occasionally report a distractor as the target. Here, we directly compared pooling and substitution using an analytical approach sensitive to both alternatives. In four experiments, we asked observers to report the precise orientation of a target stimulus flanked by two irrelevant distractors. In all cases, the observed data were well described by a quantitative model that assumes probabilistic substitution, and poorly described by a quantitative model that assumes that targets and distractors are averaged. These results challenge the widely held assumption that crowding can be wholly explained by compulsory pooling.
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