Can salient stimuli really be suppressed?

Abstract

Although it is often assumed that a physically salient stimulus automatically captures attention even when it is irrelevant to a current task, the signal-suppression hypothesis proposes that observers can actively suppress a salient-but-irrelevant distractor. However, it is still unknown whether suppression alone (i.e., without target enhancement) is potent enough to override attentional capture by a salient singleton in an otherwise-homogeneous background. The current study addressed this issue. On search trials (70% of trials), participants searched for a shape target on trials that either did or did not contain an irrelevant color singleton. The effects of learning to suppress the color of the singleton were examined on interleaved probe trials (30% of trials). On these trials, participants searched for a probe target letter; those letters were presented on four ovals (one colored oval and three gray ovals). Each colored oval was a singleton that was one of three types: the color of the distractor on search trials, the color of the target on search trials, or a neutral color that had not appeared on search trials. Responses were faster for the probe target on a neutral-colored or target-colored item than on a gray-colored item; however, responses were slower for the probe target on a distractor-colored item than on a gray-colored item. The results demonstrate a powerful suppression mechanism overriding attentional capture by a singleton item.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    With a heterogeneous shape display, this task may have induced feature-search mode (e.g., Bacon & Egeth, 1994). In feature-search mode, the absence of a singleton capture effect is not surprising. However, the actual reversal of the capture effect is a striking finding.

  2. 2.

    We use the term “neutral” to refer to a singleton color that has not been used on search trials. Of course, in ordinary usage gray could also be considered neutral, but it doesn’t ever serve as a singleton. Please note the terminology is slightly different from that in Chang and Egeth (2019).

  3. 3.

    In classical paradigms, singleton capture effects are obtained when there is a singleton distractor slowing target search (e.g., Theeuwes, 1992). However, on probe trials in our paradigm, a singleton item on each display was either a target or a distractor item. Therefore, we refer to the obtained singleton related effects as either a singleton-facilitation effect or a singleton-inhibition effect depending on the pattern of the data.

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Acknowledgement

We thank Corbin A. Cunningham for valuable discussion and helpful comments.

Funding

This research was supported in part by a grant from the Kwanjeong Lee Chong Hwan Educational Foundation (KEF-2016) to S. Chang.

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Correspondence to Seah Chang.

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Open Practices Statement

The data for the experiment reported here are available at https://osf.io/f7np4 the experiment was not preregistered.

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Chang, S., Egeth, H.E. Can salient stimuli really be suppressed?. Atten Percept Psychophys 83, 260–269 (2021). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-020-02207-8

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Keywords

  • Attention
  • Attentional capture
  • Visual search