Search asymmetry: a diagnostic for preattentive processing of separable features

J Exp Psychol Gen. 1985 Sep;114(3):285-310. doi: 10.1037//0096-3445.114.3.285.


The search rate for a target among distractors may vary dramatically depending on which stimulus plays the role of target and which that of distractors. For example, the time required to find a circle distinguished by an intersecting line is independent of the number of regular circles in the display, whereas the time to find a regular circle among circles with lines increases linearly with the number of distractors. The pattern of performance suggests parallel processing when the target has a unique distinguishing feature and serial self-terminating search when the target is distinguished only by the absence of a feature that is present in all the distractors. The results are consistent with feature-integration theory (Treisman & Gelade, 1980), which predicts that a single feature should be detected by the mere presence of activity in the relevant feature map, whereas tasks that require subjects to locate multiple instances of a feature demand focused attention. Search asymmetries may therefore offer a new diagnostic to identify the primitive features of early vision. Several candidate features are examined in this article: Colors, line ends or terminators, and closure (in the sense of a partly or wholly enclosed area) appear to be functional features; connectedness, intactness (absence of an intersecting line), and acute angles do not.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Color Perception
  • Discrimination Learning
  • Dominance, Cerebral*
  • Female
  • Form Perception
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Orientation
  • Visual Perception*