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Attentional capture: Role of top-down focused spatial attention and the need to search among multiple locations

Top-down focused spatial attention can counteract bottom-up attentional capture of an irrelevant but salient distractor outside the attentional focus (e.g., Bertleff, Fink, & Weidner, 2016; Yantis & Jonides, 1990). The present behavioural study differentiates two alternative concepts accounting for the absence of attentional capture under top-down focused attention. In particular, top-down focused attention may counteract attentional capture by altering salience coding outside the focus of attention (Theeuwes, 2010). Alternatively, spatially focusing on a pre-defined region of potential target locations may omit the need to search among multiple salience signals (Lamy, Leber, & Egeth, 2012), thereby eliminating the tendency of unattended stimuli to compete for attentional selection and hence, to capture attention.
Spatial cues explicitly indicating a variable number of potential target locations preceded the additional singleton paradigm (Theeuwes, 1991) to gradually manipulate the need to search for a target (i.e., to select a target from an array of distractors) and to determine its effects on attentional capture.
Attentional capture occurred only when a salient distractor was located at potential target locations and never occurred when located outside the attended spotlight. This finding was independent of the parametrical variations related to the need to search for the target, which did not modulate attentional capture either. Accordingly, an unattended salient distractor cannot capture attention although an observer is in need to select a target from multiple salience signals.
This finding suggests that top-down focused attention does not counteract attentional capture by omitting search and selection processes and thereby competition between multiple locations. In principle, these results could be interpreted in favour of accounts suggesting that salience calculation and hence, competition between salience signals is restricted to the spatial attentional spotlight (Theeuwes, 2010). However, recent fMRI data (Bertleff et al., 2016) suggest that the absence of attentional capture at unattended distractor locations is not associated with reduced salience coding, but rather provide evidence for the implementation of higher cognitive control processes. For instance, top-down control may generate a strong spatial bias towards the relevant target location to counteract a spatial bias towards competing salience signals at irrelevant distractor locations.

Bertleff 2017

Figure: (A) Example trial sequences for the different experimental conditions. A cueing display preceded the visual search display to parametrically vary the need to search within the spatial focus of attention. The cue was perfectly valid either indicating the exact position, the quadrant or the hemifield of the upcoming target position, or was spatially non-predictive (whole display). The visual search display consisted of a singleton target shape among homogenously shaped distractors with a salient singleton colour distractor being either present or absent from the display.
(B) Mean reaction times (RT, lines) and percentage misses/errors (bars) are shown separately for each condition, i.e., need to search within the top-down spatial focus (one position, quadrant or hemifield) and the control condition (whole display) when a salient distractor is either present or absent. Error bars reflect the 95% within-subject confidence interval of the mean. The presence of a salient distractor significantly increased RT only when it was located within the attentional focus, i.e. when the whole search display was cued. However, irrespective of how much search was needed within the top-down spatial focus (one position, quadrant or hemifield), a salient distractor located outside did not affect RT.



Bertleff, S., Fink, G. R., & Weidner, R. (2016). The Role of Top–Down Focused Spatial Attention in Preattentive Salience Coding and Salience-based Attentional Capture. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 28(8), 1152–1165.
Lamy, D., Leber, A. B., & Egeth, H. E. (2012). Selective Attention. In A.F. Healy & R.W. Proctor (Eds.), Experimental Psychology. Volume 4 in I.B. Weiner (Editor-in-Chief), Handbook of Psychology, New York: Wiley.
Theeuwes, J. (1991). Cross-dimensional perceptual selectivity. Perception & Psychophysics, 50(2), 184–193.
Theeuwes, J. (2010). Top-down and bottom-up control of visual selection. Acta Psychologica, 135(2), 77–99.
Yantis, S., & Jonides, J. (1990). Abrupt visual onsets and selective attention: Voluntary versus automatic allocation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 16(1), 121–134.


Bertleff, S., Fink, G. R., & Weidner, R. (2017). Attentional capture: Role of top-down focused spatial attention and the need to search among multiple locations. Visual Cognition, 1-17

Correspondence to:

Sabine Bertleff