Research Article: Follow the sign! Top-down contingent attentional capture of masked arrow cues

Date Published: December 1, 2011

Publisher: University of Finance and Management in Warsaw

Author(s): Heiko Reuss, Carsten Pohl, Andrea Kiesel, Wilfried Kunde.


Arrow cues and other overlearned spatial symbols automatically orient attention
according to their spatial meaning. This renders them similar to exogenous cues
that occur at stimulus location. Exogenous cues trigger shifts of attention even
when they are presented subliminally. Here, we investigate to what extent the
mechanisms underlying the orienting of attention by exogenous cues and by arrow
cues are comparable by analyzing the effects of visible and masked arrow cues on
attention. In Experiment 1, we presented arrow cues with overall 50% validity.
Visible cues, but not masked cues, lead to shifts of attention. In Experiment 2,
the arrow cues had an overall validity of 80%. Now both visible and masked
arrows lead to shifts of attention. This is in line with findings that
subliminal exogenous cues capture attention only in a top-down contingent
manner, that is, when the cues fit the observer’s intentions.

Partial Text

Our ability to focus cognitive resources on behaviorally relevant stimuli enables us
to efficiently act and interact with our environment. This selection process is,
amongst other things, achieved through spatial shifts of attention. These shifts of
attention can happen in two ways, which both have been investigated extensively
(e.g., Folk, Remington, & Johnston, 1992;
Jonides, 1981; Müller & Rabbitt, 1989; Posner, 1980; Posner &
Cohen, 1984; Theeuwes, 1991; Yantis & Johnson, 1990). On the one hand,
shifts of attention can be initiated intentionally by the observer, for example,
because a task like a visual search task demands shifting attention to several
locations in the visual field to find a target (Treisman & Gelade, 1980; Treisman,
Sykes, & Gelade, 1977; Wolfe,
1994), or because we follow a sign or a cue stimulus that informs us
about the likely location of a target stimulus (Posner, 1980; Posner, Snyder, &
Davidson, 1980). This kind of shift of attention is often referred to as
being endogenous, and is thus thought to reflect an intentional orienting of
attention under internal cognitive control. On the other hand, sudden stimulus
onsets, like a loud bang, or a flash of light, automatically draw our attention to
them, without our intention to do so (e.g., Jonides
& Yantis, 1988). This automatic capture of attention is called
exogenous, which refers to the external aspect of this kind of orienting of

We conducted two experiments to investigate the effect of visible and masked arrow
cues on attention. We were able to replicate findings that visible, centrally
presented arrows trigger automatic shifts of attention (Friesen et al., 2004; Gibson
& Bryant, 2005; Hommel et al.,
2001; Pratt et al., 2010; Tipples, 2002). Most importantly, masked arrow
cues also triggered shifts of attention, yet only when overall cue validity was 80%,
whereas masked cues remained ineffective when overall cue validity was 50%. Thus,
our results showed that with masked arrows, the effect of centrally presented arrows
is not purely stimulus driven, but modulated by the partcipants’ current
intentions and top-down settings.




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