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Attention capacity and task difficulty in visual search


When a visual search task is very difficult (as when a small feature difference defines the target), even detection of a unique element may be substantially slowed by increases in display set size. This has been attributed to the influence of attentional capacity limits. We examined the influence of attentional capacity limits on three kinds of search task: difficult feature search (with a subtle featural difference), difficult conjunction search, and spatial-configuration search. In all 3 tasks, each trial contained sixteen items, divided into two eight-item sets. The two sets were presented either successively or simultaneously. Comparison of accuracy in successive versus simultaneous presentations revealed that attentional capacity limitations are present only in the case of spatial configuration search. While the other two types of task were inefficient (as reflected in steep search slopes), no capacity limitations were evident. We conclude that the difficulty of a visual search task affects search efficiency but does not necessarily introduce attentional capacity limits. (C) 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

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