More Attention to Attention? An Eye-Tracking Investigation of Selection of Perceptual Attributes During a Task Switch

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Switching tasks prolongs response times, an effect reduced but not eliminated by active preparation. To explore the role of attentional selection of the relevant stimulus attribute in these task-switch costs, we measured eye fixations in participants cued to identify either a face or a letter displayed on its forehead. With only 200 ms between cue and stimulus onsets, the eyes fixated the currently relevant region of the stimulus less and the irrelevant region more on switch than on repeat trials, at stimulus onset and for 500 ms thereafter, in a pattern suggestive of delayed orientation of attention to the relevant region on switch trials. With 800 ms to prepare, both switch costs and inappropriate fixations were reduced, but on switch trials participants still tended (relative to repeat trials) to fixate the now-irrelevant region more at stimulus onset and to maintain fixation on, or refixate, the irrelevant region more during the next 500 ms. The size of this attentional persistence was associated with differences in performance costs between and within participants. We suggest that reorientation of attention is an important, albeit somewhat neglected and controversial, component of advance task-set reconfiguration and that the task-set inertia (or reactivation) to which many attribute the residual task-switch cost seen after preparation includes inertia in (or reactivation of) attentional parameters.

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