The heterogeneity of our visual environment typically reduces the speed with which a singleton target can be found. Visual search theories explain this via nontarget similarities and dissimilarities that affect grouping, perceptual noise, etc. Here, we show that increasing the heterogeneity of a display can facilitate rather than inhibit visual search for size and orientation singletons when heterogeneous features smoothly fill the transition between highly distinguishable nontargets. We suggest that this smooth transition reduce the “segmentability” of dissimilar items to otherwise separate subsets making the visual system to treat them as a near-homogenous sets opposing to a singleton.
Four experiments were performed to examine the hypothesis that abstract, nonspatial, statistical representations of object numerosity can be used for attentional guidance in a feature search task.Participants searched for an odd-colored target among distractors of one, two, or three other colors. An enduring advantage of large over small sets (i.e., negative slopes of search functions) was found, and this advantage grew with the number of colored subsets among distractors. The results of Experiments 1 and 2 showed that the negative slopes cannot be ascribed to the spatial grouping between distractors but can be partially explained by the spatial density of the visual sets. Hence, it appears that observers relied on numerosity of subsets to guide attention. Experiments 3a and 3b tested the processes within and between color subsets of distractors more precisely. It was found that the visual system collects numerosity statistics that can be used for guidance within each subset independently. However, each subset representation should be serially selected by attention. As attention shifts from one subset to another, the “statistical power” effects from every single subset are accumulated to provide a more pronounced negative slope.