Humans are selective information processors who efficiently prevent goal-inappropriate stimulus information to gain control over their actions. Nonetheless, stimuli, which are both unnecessary for solving a current task and liable to cue an incorrect response (i.e., "distractors"), frequently modulate task performance, even when consistently paired with a physical feature that makes them easily discernible from target stimuli. Current models of cognitive control assume adjustment of the processing of distractor information based on the overall distractor utility (e.g., predictive value regarding the appropriate response, likelihood to elicit conflict with target processing). Although studies on distractor interference have supported the notion of utility-based processing adjustment, previous evidence is inconclusive regarding the specificity of this adjustment for distractor information and the stage(s) of processing affected. To assess the processing of distractors during sensory-perceptual phases we applied EEG recording in a stimulus identification task, involving successive distractor-target presentation, and manipulated the overall distractor utility. Behavioral measures replicated previously found utility modulations of distractor interference. Crucially, distractor-evoked visual potentials (i.e., posterior N1) were more pronounced in high-utility than low-utility conditions. This effect generalized to distractors unrelated to the utility manipulation, providing evidence for item-unspecific adjustment of early distractor processing to the experienced utility of distractor information.
Keywords: conflict adaptation; contingency learning; early selection; visual attention.
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