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Can (should) theories of crowding be unified?

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Objects in clutter are difficult to recognize, a phenomenon known as crowding. There is little consensus on the underlying mechanisms of crowding, and a large number of models have been proposed. There have also been attempts at unifying the explanations of crowding under a single model, such as the weighted feature model of Harrison and Bex (2015) and the texture synthesis model of Rosenholtz and colleagues (Balas, Nakano, & Rosenholtz, 2009; Keshvari & Rosenholtz, 2016). The goal of this work was to test various models of crowding and to assess whether a unifying account can be developed. Adopting Harrison and Bex's (2015) experimental paradigm, we asked observers to report the orientation of two concentric C-stimuli. Contrary to the predictions of their model, observers' recognition accuracy was worse for the inner C-stimulus. In addition, we demonstrated that the stimulus paradigm used by Harrison and Bex has a crucial confounding factor, eccentricity, which limits its usage to a very narrow range of stimulus parameters. Nevertheless, reporting the orientations of both C-stimuli in this paradigm proved very useful in pitting different crowding models against each other. Specifically, we tested deterministic and probabilistic versions of averaging, substitution, and attentional resolution models as well as the texture synthesis model. None of the models alone was able to explain the entire set of data. Based on these findings, we discuss whether the explanations of crowding can (should) be unified.

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