Attention and the detection of signals

J Exp Psychol. 1980 Jun;109(2):160-74.


Detection of a visual signal requires information to reach a system capable of eliciting arbitrary responses required by the experimenter. Detection latencies are reduced when subjects receive a cue that indicates where in the visual field the signal will occur. This shift in efficiency appears to be due to an alignment (orienting) of the central attentional system with the pathways to be activated by the visual input. It would also be possible to describe these results as being due to a reduced criterion at the expected target position. However, this description ignores important constraints about the way in which expectancy improves performance. First, when subjects are cued on each trial, they show stronger expectancy effects than when a probable position is held constant for a block, indicating the active nature of the expectancy. Second, while information on spatial position improves performance, information on the form of the stimulus does not. Third, expectancy may lead to improvements in latency without a reduction in accuracy. Fourth, there appears to be little ability to lower the criterion at two positions that are not spatially contiguous. A framework involving the employment of a limited-capacity attentional mechanism seems to capture these constraints better than the more general language of criterion setting. Using this framework, we find that attention shifts are not closely related to the saccadic eye movement system. For luminance detection the retina appears to be equipotential with respect to attention shifts, since costs to unexpected stimuli are similar whether foveal or peripheral. These results appear to provide an important model system for the study of the relationship between attention and the structure of the visual system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Cues
  • Humans
  • Orientation
  • Space Perception
  • Visual Perception*