It is well established that involuntary attention—the exogenous capture of attention by salient but task-irrelevant stimuli—can strongly modulate target detection and discrimination performance. There is an ongoing debate, however, about how involuntary attention affects target performance. Some studies suggest that it results from enhanced perception of the target, whereas others indicate instead that it affects decisional stages of information processing. From a review of these studies, we hypothesized that the presence of distractors and task sets are key factors in determining the effect of involuntary attention on target perception. Consistent with this hypothesis, here we found that noninformative cues summoning involuntary attention affected perceptual identification of a target when distractors were present. This cuing effect could not be attributed to reduced target location uncertainty or decision bias. The only condition under which involuntary attention improved target perception in the absence of distractors occurred when observers did not adopt a task set to focus attention on the target location. We conclude that the perceptual effects of involuntary attention depend on distractor interference and the adoption of a task set to resolve such stimulus competition.
© 2014 ARVO.