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Object-based selection operating on a spatial representation made salient by dimensional segmentation mechanisms: a re-investigation of Egly and Homa (1984)

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Three experiments re-investigated selective attention in the ‘ring-cueing’ paradigm of Egly and Homa (J Exp Psychol: Human Percept Perform 10:778–793, 1984). Observers were cued to attend to one of three concentric rings of radius 1°, 2°, or 3°, and their signal detection accuracy for cued and uncued rings was measured. Experiment 1, which used a central color cue to indicate a like-colored ring, replicated ring-cueing effects along the lines of Egly and Homa. Experiments 2 and 3 examined whether these effects were produced by observers exploiting secondary-depth cues possibly inherent in the display layout. With color cues, the availability of secondary-depth information had no influence on the ring-cueing effects. However, making the rings monochrome and using central size cues significantly reduced the ring-cueing effects when the depth information was disrupted. The results suggest that selection was object-based, operating on a spatial ‘grouped-array’ representation of the cued ring made salient by color- or depth-based segmentation mechanisms.

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  1. 1.

    To illustrate the importance of the independent decisions, suppose that a target on an uncued object captures attention, but that the observer has to make a target/no-target decision concerning the cued object. When displays contain at most one target (i.e., without an independent-decisions design), an observer probably could infer from the detection of a target on an uncued object (attention capture; e.g., Yantis, 1993) that the cued object did not contain a target and, consequently, give a negative response. Such inferred judgements would confound the estimates of perceptual sensitivity.

  2. 2.

    Previous studies that used this technique (e.g., Downing, 1988; Müller & Humphreys, 1991) required observers to make multiple decisions (to multiple locations) on a given trial, with the possibility of loss of information from visual short-term memory (VSTM) during the time between target display presentation and sequential yes/no responses (to potential target locations).

  3. 3.

    The measurement reliability was least for the neutral trials. There are two reasons for this: First, the neutral-trial sensitivity estimates were based on a much smaller number of responses than the valid and invalid-trial sensitivity estimates. For example, in Experiment 1 for each ring, there were only 24 neutral-trial probes per session (12 positive and 12 negative), compared to 120 valid-trial probes (96/24) and 120 invalid-trial probes (60/60). Second, neutral-cue trials were much rarer than informative-cue trials (16.67 vs. 83.33%), so that observers may not have consistently adopted a ‘neutral’ spatial-attentional set (dividing attention equally across the three rings). Rather, they might have tended to set themselves for a preferred ring/object (e.g., inner ring).

  4. 4.

    Overall accuracy for valid, neutral, and invalid trials was 763, 0.753, and 0.662 in Experiment 1 (1); 0.777, 0.747, and 0.717 and, respectively, 807, 0.765, and 0.720 in the secondary-depth (2) and depth-disrupted conditions (3) of Experiment 2; and 0.807, 0.748, and 0.721 and, respectively, 0.778, 0.775, and 0.746 in the secondary-depth (4) and depth-disrupted conditions (5) of Experiment 3. Thus, in experimental conditions 2, 3 and 4 the accuracy benefits and costs with respect to neutral-trial accuracy were reasonably symmetrical; in the other two conditions, 1 and 5, the accuracy costs were larger than the benefits.

  5. 5.

    An alternative assumption would be that selection is three dimensional in the sense of true 3D object or, at least, surface selection. This is not ruled out by the present experiments, in which the rings could only be viewed as 2D objects falling in different depth planes. To test the alternative hypothesis, one would have to use displays of objects that undulate in and out of their depth planes. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it appears more parsimonious to assume that selection is based on a two-dimensional representation.

  6. 6.

    Further evidence for a grouped-array representation mediating object selection has been provided by O’Grady and Müller (2000) who found that object cueing enhanced the detection of targets that appeared on the cued object’s outline shape (i.e., at location markers that were part of the grouped array), but not the detection of targets that appeared within the spatial region delineated by the cued object.

  7. 7.

    The present findings would appear to be inconsistent with Nakayama and Silverman’s (1986b) proposal that (stereoscopic) depth, and 2D spatial locus, hold priority over other stimulus dimensions in visual search and selection. However, it has to be borne in mind that the present experiments manipulated secondary, rather than stereoscopic, depth cues.


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This research was supported by a Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) grant to H.J. Müller and an ESRC studentship to R.B. O’Grady.

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Correspondence to Hermann J. Müller.

Appendix 1

Appendix 1

See Tables 4 and 5.

Table 4 Basic permutation of target-present (1) and target-absent (0) incidents on each of the cued and two uncued rings under valid and invalid-cueing conditions, on trials with spatially informative cues in Experiment 1
Table 5 Basic permutation of target-present (1) and target-absent (0) incidents on each of the close, middle, and distant rings, on neutral trials in Experiment 1

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Müller, H.J., O’Grady, R.B. Object-based selection operating on a spatial representation made salient by dimensional segmentation mechanisms: a re-investigation of Egly and Homa (1984). Psychological Research 73, 271–286 (2009).

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  • Spatial Attention
  • Neutral Trial
  • Depth Plane
  • Depth Condition
  • Distant Ring