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J Vis. 2012 Jun 8;12(6):10. doi: 10.1167/12.6.10.

Does precision decrease with set size?

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Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, USA.


The brain encodes visual information with limited precision. Contradictory evidence exists as to whether the precision with which an item is encoded depends on the number of stimuli in a display (set size). Some studies have found evidence that precision decreases with set size, but others have reported constant precision. These groups of studies differed in two ways. The studies that reported a decrease used displays with heterogeneous stimuli and tasks with a short-term memory component, while the ones that reported constancy used homogeneous stimuli and tasks that did not require short-term memory. To disentangle the effects of heterogeneity and short-memory involvement, we conducted two main experiments. In Experiment 1, stimuli were heterogeneous, and we compared a condition in which target identity was revealed before the stimulus display with one in which it was revealed afterward. In Experiment 2, target identity was fixed, and we compared heterogeneous and homogeneous distractor conditions. In both experiments, we compared an optimal-observer model in which precision is constant with set size with one in which it depends on set size. We found that precision decreases with set size when the distractors are heterogeneous, regardless of whether short-term memory is involved, but not when it is homogeneous. This suggests that heterogeneity, not short-term memory, is the critical factor. In addition, we found that precision exhibits variability across items and trials, which may partly be caused by attentional fluctuations.

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