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J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 1993 Apr;19(2):331-51.

What enumeration studies can show us about spatial attention: evidence for limited capacity preattentive processing.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada.


Subitizing, the enumeration of 1-4 items, is rapid (40-120 ms/item) and accurate. Counting, the enumeration of 5 items or more, is slow (250-350 ms/item) and error-prone. Why are small numbers of items enumerated differently from large numbers of items? It is suggested that subitizing relies on a preattentive mechanism. Ss could subitize heterogeneously sized multicontour items but not concentric multicontour items, which require attentional processing because preattentive gestalt processes misgroup contours from different items to form units. Similarly, Ss could subitize target items among distractors but only if the targets and distractors differed by a feature, a property derived through preattentive analysis. Thus, subitizing must rely on a mechanism that can handle a few items at once, which operates before attention but after preattentive operations of feature detection and grouping.

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