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Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2016;69(7):1340-65. doi: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1080738. Epub 2015 Sep 22.

An effective attentional set for a specific colour does not prevent capture by infrequently presented motion distractors.

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a School of Psychology , The University of Queensland , Brisbane , QLD , Australia.


An organism's survival depends on the ability to rapidly orient attention to unanticipated events in the world. Yet, the conditions needed to elicit such involuntary capture remain in doubt. Especially puzzling are spatial cueing experiments, which have consistently shown that involuntary shifts of attention to highly salient distractors are not determined by stimulus properties, but instead are contingent on attentional control settings induced by task demands. Do we always need to be set for an event to be captured by it, or is there a class of events that draw attention involuntarily even when unconnected to task goals? Recent results suggest that a task-irrelevant event will capture attention on first presentation, suggesting that salient stimuli that violate contextual expectations might automatically capture attention. Here, we investigated the role of contextual expectation by examining whether an irrelevant motion cue that was presented only rarely (∼3-6% of trials) would capture attention when observers had an active set for a specific target colour. The motion cue had no effect when presented frequently, but when rare produced a pattern of interference consistent with attentional capture. The critical dependence on the frequency with which the irrelevant motion singleton was presented is consistent with early theories of involuntary orienting to novel stimuli. We suggest that attention will be captured by salient stimuli that violate expectations, whereas top-down goals appear to modulate capture by stimuli that broadly conform to contextual expectations.


Attentional capture; Rare singleton capture; Spatial attention; Spatial cueing; Surprise capture

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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