Prioritization in visual attention does not work the way you think it does

Gavin J P Ng, Simona Buetti, Trisha N Patel, Alejandro Lleras

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A common assumption in attention theories is that attention prioritizes search items based on their similarity to the target. Here, we tested this assumption and found it wanting. Observers searched through displays containing candidates (distractors that cannot be confidently differentiated from the target by peripheral vision) and lures (distractors that can be). Candidates had high or low similarity to the target. Search displays were either candidate-homogeneous (all items of same similarity) or candidate-heterogeneous (equal numbers of each similarity). Response times to candidate-heterogeneous displays were equivalent to the average of high- and low-similarity displays, suggesting that attention was allocated randomly, rather than toward the high-similarity candidates first. Lures added a response time cost that was independent of the candidates, suggesting they were rejected prior to candidates being inspected. These results suggest a "reverse" prioritization process: Distributed attention discards least target-similar items first, while focused spatial attention is randomly directed to target-similar items. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)252-268
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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