Spatial distribution of visual attention: perceptual sensitivity and response latency

T C Handy, A Kingstone, and G R Mangun (1996). Percept Psychophys, 58(4):613-27.

Studies of the spatial distribution of visual attention have shown that attentional facilitation monotonically decreases in a graded fashion with increasing distance from an attended location. However, reaction time (RT) measures have typically shown broader gradients than have signal detection (SD) measures of perceptual sensitivity. It is not clear whether these differences have arisen because the stages of information processing indexed by RT measures are different from those indexed by SD measures, or whether these differences are due to methodological confounds in the SD studies. In the present set of experiments, the spatial distribution of attention was studied by using a luminance detection task in an endogenous cuing paradigm that was designed to permit accurate calculations of SD and RT measures for targets at cued and uncued locations. Subjects made target-present/absent decisions at one of six possible cued or uncued upper visual hemifield locations on each trial. The results from three experiments suggest that the differences between broad and focal attentional distributions are not the result of different stages of information processing indexed by RT measures as opposed to SD measures. Rather, the differing distributions appear to reflect variations in attentional allocation strategies induced by the perceptual requirements typical of RT paradigms as opposed to SD paradigms. These findings support numerous prior studies showing that spatial attention affects perceptual sensitivity and that the strategic allocation of attention is a highly flexible process.

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