Transition From Feature-Search to Singleton-Detection Strategies in Visual Search: The Role of Number of Target-Defining Options

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When searching for a uniquely colored target in an RSVP stream of homogeneously colored nontarget items, observers can use singleton-detection and/or feature-search modes. Using an attentional-capture paradigm, we varied systematically (a) the number of possible target colors from 1 to 4 and (b) the presence or absence of a colored ring surrounding the nontarget item displayed 200 ms before the target. When present, the ring was either the same color as 1 of the possible targets (color-match), or an irrelevant color (color-mismatch). Capture was measured as the impairment in target identification accuracy when the ring was present relative to when it was absent. Greater capture in the color-match than in the color-mismatch condition was regarded as evidence of feature-search mode. Capture in the color-mismatch condition was regarded as evidence for singleton-detection mode. We show that, as the number of target colors is increased, the relative prominence of feature-search mode decreases, and that of singleton-detection mode increases correspondingly. This novel finding shows that, when both feature-search and singleton-detection modes are possible, at least some degree of feature-search mode is used until the number of possible target-defining colors reaches about 4. This suggests that the weight assigned to singleton-detection mode increases, and that assigned to feature-search mode decreases correspondingly, as the difficulty of maintaining the target-defining features in mind is increased.

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