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Strategic and automatic effects of visual working memory on attention in visual search

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Previous research indicates that visual attention can be automatically captured by sensory inputs that match the contents of visual working memory. However, Woodman and Luck (2007) showed that information in working memory can be used flexibly as a template for either selection or rejection according to task demands. We report two experiments that extend their work. Participants performed a visual search task while maintaining items in visual working memory. Memory items were presented for either a short or long exposure duration immediately prior to the search task. Memory was tested by a change-detection task immediately afterwards. On a random half of trials items in memory matched either one distractor in the search task (Experiment 1) or three (Experiment 2). The main result was that matching distractors speeded or slowed target detection depending on whether memory items were presented for a long or short duration. These effects were more in evidence with three matching distractors than one. We conclude that the influence of visual working memory on visual search is indeed flexible but is not solely a function of task demands. Our results suggest that attentional capture by perceptual inputs matching information in visual working memory involves a fast automatic process that can be overridden by a slower top-down process of attentional avoidance.
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Keywords: Attentional selection; Visual search; Visual working memory

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality, Ministry of Education, School of Psychology, Southwest University, Chongqing, China 2: Department of Psychology, University of York, York, UK

Publication date: 01 June 2011

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