Can We “Apply” the Findings of Forster and Lavie (2008)? On the Generalizability of Attentional Capture Effects Under Varying Levels of Perceptual Load

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Perceptual Load theory states that the degree of perceptual load on a display determines the amount of leftover attentional resources that the system can use to process distracting information. An important corollary of this theory is that the amount of perceptual load determines the vulnerability of the attention system to being captured by completely irrelevant stimuli, predicting larger amounts of capture with low perceptual load than with high perceptual load. This prediction was first confirmed by Forster and Lavie (2008). Here, we report 6 experiments that followed up on those earlier results, where we find that in many cases, the opposite pattern is obtained: attentional capture increased with increasing perceptual load. Given the lack of generalizability of the theory to new experimental contexts with fairly minor methodological differences, we conclude that Perceptual Load may not be a useful framework for understanding attentional capture. The theoretical and applied importance of these findings is discussed. In particular, we caution against using this theory in applied tasks and settings because best-use recommendations stemming from this theory regarding strategies to decrease distractibility may in fact produce the opposite effect: an increase in distractibility (with distractibility being indexed by the magnitude of the capture effect).

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