A target contrast signal theory of parallel processing in goal-directed search

Alejandro Lleras, Zhiyuan Wang, Gavin Jun Peng Ng, Kirk Ballew, Jing Xu, Simona Buetti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Feature Integration Theory (FIT) set out the groundwork for much of the work in visual cognition since its publication. One of the most important legacies of this theory has been the emphasis on feature-specific processing. Nowadays, visual features are thought of as a sort of currency of visual attention (e.g., features can be attended, processing of attended features is enhanced), and attended features are thought to guide attention towards likely targets in a scene. Here we propose an alternative theory – the Target Contrast Signal Theory – based on the idea that when we search for a specific target, it is not the target-specific features that guide our attention towards the target; rather, what determines behavior is the result of an active comparison between the target template in mind and every element present in the scene. This comparison occurs in parallel and is aimed at rejecting from consideration items that peripheral vision can confidently reject as being non-targets. The speed at which each item is evaluated is determined by the overall contrast between that item and the target template. We present computational simulations to demonstrate the workings of the theory as well as eye-movement data that support core predictions of the theory. The theory is discussed in the context of FIT and other important theories of visual search.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)394-425
Number of pages32
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2020


  • Efficient search
  • Functional viewing field
  • Parallel processing
  • Peripheral vision
  • Visual search

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Sensory Systems
  • Linguistics and Language


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