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Article

Dynamics of visual attention revealed in foraging tasks

Cognition. 2020. Vol. 194. P. 1-13.

Visual search tasks play a key role in theories of visual attention. But single-target search tasks may provide only a snapshot of attentional orienting. Foraging tasks with multiple targets of different types arguably provide a closer analogy to everyday attentional processing. Set-size effects have in the literature formed the basis for inferring how attention operates during visual search. We therefore measured the effects of absolute set-size (constant target-distractor ratio) and relative set-size (constant set-size but target-distractor ratio varies) on foraging patterns during “feature” foraging (targets differed from distractors on a single feature) and “conjunction” foraging (targets differed from distractors on a combination of two features). Patterns of runs of same target-type selection were similar regardless of whether absolute or relative set-size varied: long sequential runs during conjunction foraging but rapid switching between target types during feature foraging. But although foraging strategies differed between feature and conjunction foraging, surprisingly, intertarget times throughout foraging trials did not differ much between the conditions. Typical response time by set-size patterns for single-target visual search tasks were only observed for the last target during foraging. Furthermore, the foraging patterns within trials involved several distinct phases, that may serve as markers of particular attentional operations. Foraging tasks provide a remarkably intricate picture of attentional selection, far more detailed than traditional single-target visual search tasks, and well-known theories of visual attention have difficulty accounting for key aspects of the observed foraging patterns. Finally, we discuss how theoretical conceptions of attention could be modified to account for these effects.