September 2021
Volume 21, Issue 9
Open Access
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2021
Attentional prioritization for historical traces of agency
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Michael Lopez-Brau
    Yale University
  • Clara Colombatto
    Yale University
  • Julian Jara-Ettinger
    Yale University
  • Brian Scholl
    Yale University
  • Footnotes
    Acknowledgements  This project was funded by ONR MURI #N00014-16-1-2007 awarded to BJS.
Journal of Vision September 2021, Vol.21, 2748. doi:
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      Michael Lopez-Brau, Clara Colombatto, Julian Jara-Ettinger, Brian Scholl; Attentional prioritization for historical traces of agency. Journal of Vision 2021;21(9):2748.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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Among the most important stimuli we can perceive are other agents. Accordingly, a great deal of work has shown how visual attention is prioritized not just for certain lower-level properties (e.g. brightness or motion) but also for *social* stimuli (e.g. our impressive efficiency at detecting the presence of people in natural scenes). In nearly all such work, the relevant agents are explicitly visible — e.g. in the form of bodies, faces, or eyes. But we can also readily perceive the *historical traces* that agents may leave behind. When walking along a hiking trail, for example, a stack of rocks along the side of the path may elicit the immediate strong impression that an agent had been present, since such configurations are exceptionally unlikely to be produced by natural processes. Does visual processing also prioritize such 'traces of agency' (independent from properties such as order and complexity)? We explored this using visual search, in scenes filled with two kinds of block towers. In Agentic Trace towers, the blocks were slightly misaligned (as would only likely occur if they had been intentionally stacked by an agent), while in Non-Agentic towers they were perfectly stacked (in ways an agent would be unlikely to achieve). Across multiple experiments, observers were both faster and more accurate at detecting Agentic Trace towers (in arrays of Non-Agentic towers), compared to detecting Non-Agentic towers (in arrays of Agentic Trace towers). Critically, this difference was stronger than when the same stimuli were presented in ways that equated order and complexity (e.g. with additional vertical spacing), while eliminating perceived traces of agency. This attentional prioritization for "agency without agents" reveals that social perception is not just a response to the superficial appearances of agents themselves, but also to the deeper and subtler traces that they leave in the world.


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