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Coarse guidance by numerosity in visual search

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Author Reijnen Ester, Wolfe Jeremy, Krummenacher Joseph,
Project Selective visual processing: An integrative neurocognitive account based on psychological research methods
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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics
Title of proceedings Attention, Perception & Psychophysics


In five experiments, we examined whether the number of items can guide visual focal attention. Observers searched for the target area with the largest (or smallest) number of dots (squares in Experiment 4 and “checkerboards” in Experiment 5) among distractor areas with a smaller (or larger) number of dots. Results of Experiments 1 and 2 show that search efficiency is determined by target to distractor dot ratios. In searches where target items contained more dots than did distractor items, ratios over 1.5:1 yielded efficient search. Searches for targets where target items contained fewer dots than distractor items were harder. Here, ratios needed to be lower than 1:2 to yield efficient search. When the areas of the dots and of the squares containing them were fixed, as they were in Experiments 1 and 2, dot density and total dot area increased as dot number increased. Experiment 3 removed the density and area cues by allowing dot size and total dot area to vary. This produced a marked decline in search performance. Efficient search now required ratios of above 3:1 or below 1:3. By using more realistic and isoluminant stimuli, Experiments 4 and 5 show that guidance by numerosity is fragile. As is found with other features that guide focal attention (e.g., color, orientation, size), the numerosity differences that are able to guide attention by bottom-up signals are much coarser than the differences that can be detected in attended stimuli.