Five experiments examined whether extremely rare featural singletons (e.g., presented in 4% of all trials) capture attention, and whether this effect could be explained by top-down contingent capture or stimulus-driven singleton capture. To this end, performance (accuracy in Experiments
1–4, reaction time in Experiment 5) in a demanding letter search task was measured in singleton trials that were presented within rare-singleton blocks consisting mainly of no-singleton trials, and in singleton trials that occurred in all-singleton blocks. In separate blocks, either
target singletons (i.e., a singleton at target position), or distractor singletons (i.e., a singleton at a distractor position) were presented in each trial. Results are consistent with the contingent-capture view. When the letters were presented briefly and accuracy was the dependent variable,
a large performance benefit was obtained, revealing that attention was shifted very fast to the singleton. An examination of search efficiency with a variation of set size and reaction time as the dependent variable revealed a strong gain in search efficiency with a rare target singleton.
The large benefit was not accompanied by proportionally large costs for distractor singletons relative to the no-distractor trials. Moreover, a comparison of singleton trials from the all-singleton and from the rare-singleton blocks revealed nonspatial costs for the rare singletons that were
of about the same size for target and distractor singletons. In summary, results show that an attentional control setting can remain “dormant” for many trials where it is not applicable, but is then applied nearly as efficiently as when the control setting has been used just recently.