Optimal Task-Sets Override Attentional Capture by Rare Cues

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Many studies converge on the conclusion that spatially irrelevant precues do not capture attention when cue and target features do not match. However, a recent study reported that rare onset cues captured attention even though observers searched for a nonmatching color target. Hence, attentional capture by rare onsets cues might be cognitively impenetrable (Folk & Remington, 2015). Although we replicated these findings (Experiment 1), we hypothesized that capture by rare onset cues can be prevented when the target display promotes a stronger task-set for the target or suppression of the cue features (i.e., a white onset). Therefore, we presented the color target together with a single white nontarget, and indeed found that the rare onset cues failed to capture (Experiment 2). Moreover, we examined the previous suggestion that frequency effects are limited to onset cues by presenting rare color cues with nonmatching color targets (Experiment 3). We observed capture by rare color cues, but again, capture could be prevented when a nontarget in the cue color was added to the target display (Experiment 4). Overall, these findings suggest that capture by rare cues can be prevented when the suppressive bias against nontarget features is optimally directed against the cue properties.

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