The Impact of Configural Superiority on the Processing of Spatial Information

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The impact of context on perception has been well documented for over a century. In some cases, the introduction of context to a set of target features may produce a unified percept, leading to a quicker and more accurate classification; a configural superiority effect (Pomerantz, Sager, & Stoever, 1977). Although this effect has been well characterized in terms of the stimulus features that produce the effect, the specific impact context has on the spatial strategies adopted by observers when making perceptual judgments remains unclear. Here, we sought to address this question by using the methods of response classification and ideal observer analysis. In our main experiment, we used a stimulus set known to produce the configural superiority effect and found that although observers were faster in the presence of context, they were actually less efficient at extracting stimulus information. This surprising result was attributable to the use of a spatial strategy in which observers relied on redundant, noninformative features in the presence of context. A control experiment ruled out the possibility that the mere presence of added context led to these strategic shifts. Our results support previous notions about the nature of the perceptual shifts that are induced by the configural superiority effect. However, they also show that configural processing is more nuanced than originally thought: Although observers may be faster at making judgments when context induces the percept of a configural whole, there appears to be a hidden cost in terms of the efficiency with which information is used.

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