Reconceptualizing Perceptual Load as a Rate Problem: The Role of Time in the Allocation of Selective Attention

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In the literature about allocation of selective attention, a widely studied question is when will attention be allocated to information that is clearly irrelevant to the task at hand. The present study, by using convergent evidence, demonstrated that there is a trade-off between quantity of information present in a display and the time allowed to process it. Specifically, whether or not there is interference from irrelevant distractors depends not only on the amount of information present, but also on the amount of time allowed to process that information. When processing time is calibrated to the amount of information present, irrelevant distractors can be selectively ignored successfully. These results suggest that the perceptual load in the load theory of selective attention (i.e., Lavie, 2005) should be thought about as a dynamic rate problem rather than a static capacity limitation. The authors thus propose that rather than conceiving of perceptual load as a quantity of information, they should consider it as a quantity of information per unit of time. In other words, it is the relationship between the quantity of information in the task and the time for processing the information that determines the allocation of selective attention. Thus, the present findings extended load theory, allowing it to explain findings that were previously considered as counter evidence of load theory.

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