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Psychol Res. 2009 Mar;73(2):212-21. doi: 10.1007/s00426-008-0211-1. Epub 2008 Dec 10.

Misleading contextual cues: how do they affect visual search?

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Department of Experimental Psychology, Institut für Psychologie II, Otto-von-Guericke-Universität, Postfach 4120, 39016, Magdeburg, Germany.


Contextual cueing occurs when repetitions of the distractor configuration are implicitly learned. This implicit learning leads to faster search times in repeated displays. Here, we investigated how search adapts to a change of the target location in old displays from a consistent location in the learning phase to a consistent new location in the transfer phase. In agreement with the literature, contextual cueing was accompanied by fewer fixations, a more efficient scan path and, specifically, an earlier onset of a monotonic gaze approach phase towards the target location in repeated displays. When the repeated context was no longer predictive of the old target location, search times and number of fixations for old displays increased to the level of novel displays. Along with this, scan paths for old and new displays became equally efficient. After the target location change, there was a bias of exploration towards the old target location, which soon disappeared. Thus, change of implicitly learned spatial relations between target and distractor configuration eliminated the advantageous effects of contextual cueing, but did not lead to a lasting impairment of search in repeated displays relative to novel displays.

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