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J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 1990 Feb;16(1):121-34.

Abrupt visual onsets and selective attention: voluntary versus automatic allocation.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21218.


The hypothesis that abrupt visual onsets capture attention automatically, as suggested by Yantis and Jonides (1984) was tested in four experiments. A centrally located cue directed attention to one of several stimulus positions in preparation for the identification of a target letter embedded in an array of distractor letters. In all experiments, one stimulus (either the target or one of the distractors) had an abrupt onset; the remaining letters did not. The effectiveness of the cue was manipulated (varying either its duration or its predictive validity) to test whether abrupt onsets capture attention even when subjects are in a highly focused attentional state. Results showed that onsets do not necessarily capture attention in violation of an observer's intentions. A mechanism for partially automatic attentional capture by abrupt onset is proposed, and the diagnosticity of the intentionality criterion for automaticity is discussed.

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