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Article

Categorical grouping is not required for guided conjunction search

Journal of Vision. 2020. Vol. 20. No. 8. P. 1-22.
Utochkin I. S., Khvostov V., Wolfe J. M.

Knowledge of target features can guide attention in many conjunction searches in a top-down manner. For example, in search of a red vertical line among blue vertical and red horizontal lines, observers can guide attention toward all red items and all vertical items. In typical conjunction searches, distractors often form perceptually vivid, categorical groups of identical objects. This could favor the efficient search via guidance of attention to these “segmentable” groups. Can attention be guided if the distractors are not neatly segmentable (e.g., if colors vary continuously from red through purple to blue)? We tested search for conjunctions of color × orientation (Experiments 1, 3, 4, 5) or length × orientation (Experiment 2). In segmentable conditions, distractors could form two clear groups (e.g., blue steep and red flat). In non-segmentable conditions, distractors varied smoothly from red to blue and/or steep to flat; thus, discouraging grouping and increasing overall heterogeneity. We found that the efficiency of conjunction search was reasonably high and unaffected by segmentability. The same lack of segmentability had a detrimental effect on feature search (Experiment 4) and on conjunction search, if target information was limited to one feature (e.g., find the odd item in the red set, “subset search,” Experiment 3). Guidance in conjunction search may not require grouping and segmentation cues that are very important in other tasks like texture discrimination. Our results support an idea of simultaneous, parallel top-down guidance by multiple features and argue against models suggesting sequential guidance by each feature in turn.