Direct Evidence for Active Suppression of Salient-but-Irrelevant Sensory Inputs

Psychol Sci. 2015 Nov;26(11):1740-50. doi: 10.1177/0956797615597913. Epub 2015 Sep 29.


Researchers have long debated whether attentional capture is purely stimulus driven or purely goal driven. In the current study, we tested a hybrid account, called the signal-suppression hypothesis, which posits that stimuli automatically produce a bottom-up salience signal, but that this signal can be suppressed via top-down control processes. To test this account, we used a new capture-probe paradigm in which participants searched for a target shape while ignoring an irrelevant color singleton. On occasional probe trials, letters were briefly presented inside the search shapes, and participants attempted to report these letters. Under conditions that promoted capture by the irrelevant singleton, accuracy was greater for the letter inside the singleton distractor than for letters inside nonsingleton distractors. However, when the conditions were changed to avoid capture by the singleton, accuracy for the letter inside the irrelevant singleton was reduced below the level observed for letters inside nonsingleton distractors, an indication of active suppression of processing at the singleton location.

Keywords: attentional capture; inhibition; spatial attention; suppression; visual search.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Reaction Time*
  • Young Adult