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Renee Sahatdjian, Nancy Carlisle, Ziyao Zhang; Utilization of negative attentional template in search mediated by task difficulty. Journal of Vision 2020;20(11):385. https://doi.org/10.1167/jov.20.11.385.
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A predominant finding in attentional literature is that the presentation of a target (positive) cue can bias attention towards the target, and lead to significant benefits in search performance. Yet, it has been largely debated whether negative cues, indicating distractor color, enhance search performance by guiding attention away from distractor items . Recently, a study examined whether task difficulty, manipulated by varying the levels of distractor and target similarity, could play a role in whether negative search templates are effective (Conci, Deichsel, Müller, & Töllner, Visual Cognition, 2019). In a between-subjects design, they found that negative search templates provided significant benefits to search performance, but only during the more difficult tasks, suggesting participants adopted different strategies for easy versus hard visual search when presented with a negative cue. In this study, we wanted to know if these strategy switches could happen within subjects as well. Participants searched for a target T shape among a series of distractors. On easy trials, targets and distractors were distinct and on hard trials target and distractor shapes were more similar. Preceding the search task, a color cue was presented, and participants were informed that the color presented would either match the color of the target (positive cue), match the color the participant was to ignore (negative cue), or it would not match any color in the search task (neutral cue). Replicating the pattern from Conci and colleagues (2019), there was no benefit to using the negative cue on easy trials, but a significant benefit to search on hard trials. This suggests participants can easily switch between using the negative cue and ignoring it based on task difficulty, and emphasizes that negative cue use is a strategic choice.
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