Contextual Cueing Improves Attentional Guidance, Even When Guidance Is Supposedly Optimal

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Abstract

Visual search through previously encountered contexts typically produces reduced reaction times compared with search through novel contexts. This contextual cueing benefit is well established, but there is debate regarding its underlying mechanisms. Eye-tracking studies have consistently shown reduced number of fixations with repetition, supporting improvements in attentional guidance as the source of contextual cueing. However, contextual cueing benefits have been shown in conditions in which attentional guidance should already be optimal—namely, when attention is captured to the target location by an abrupt onset, or under pop-out conditions. These results have been used to argue for a response-related account of contextual cueing. Here, we combine eye tracking with response time to examine the mechanisms behind contextual cueing in spatially cued and pop-out conditions. Three experiments find consistent response time benefits with repetition, which appear to be driven almost entirely by a reduction in number of fixations, supporting improved attentional guidance as the mechanism behind contextual cueing. No differences were observed in the time between fixating the target and responding—our proxy for response related processes. Furthermore, the correlation between contextual cueing magnitude and the reduction in number of fixations on repeated contexts approaches 1. These results argue strongly that attentional guidance is facilitated by familiar search contexts, even when guidance is near-optimal.

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