Overriding stimulus-driven attentional capture

Percept Psychophys. 1994 May;55(5):485-96. doi: 10.3758/bf03205306.


Theeuwes (1992) found a distracting effect of irrelevant-dimension singletons in a task involving search for a known target. He argued from this that selectivity is determined solely by stimulus salience; the parallel stage of visual processing cannot provide top-down guidance to the attentive stage sufficient to permit completely selective use of task-relevant information. We argue that in the task used by Theeuwes, subjects may have adopted the strategy of searching for an odd form even though the specific target form was known. In Experiment 1, we replicated Theeuwes's findings. Search for a circle target among diamond nontargets was disrupted by the presence of a diamond nontarget that was uniquely colored. In two subsequent experiments, we discouraged the singleton detection strategy, forcing subjects to search for the target feature. There was no distracting effect of a color singleton in these experiments, even with displays physically identical to those of Experiment 1, demonstrating that top-down selectivity is indeed possible during visual search. We conclude that goal-directed selection of a specific known featural identity may override stimulus-driven capture by salient featural singletons.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Discrimination Learning*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Orientation
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Psychophysics
  • Reaction Time