Identifying visual targets amongst interfering distractors: Sorting out the roles of perceptual load, dilution, and attentional zoom.
In the flanker paradigm, participants identify a target letter while attempting to ignore an irrelevant flanker. When the identity of this flanker mismatches the target, target identification is slowed (called the flanker compatibility effect). Interestingly, reducing the array set size greatly increases flanker compatibility effects. This finding inspired 2 prominent explanations: perceptual load (mandatory capacity spillover) and dilution (visual interference). However, an alternative explanation, based on early selection theory and attention capture research, can also explain the data pattern. According to this "slippage" account, observers sometimes accidentally allocate spatial attention to the flanker (see Lachter, Forster, & Ruthruff, 2004), especially when the flanker has the property used to find the target (cf. contingent capture). In Experiments 1 through 4, deterring slippage to the flanker nearly eliminated flanker compatibility effects, even at the low set size. In Experiment 5, promoting slippage to the flanker dramatically enhanced compatibility effects, even at the high set size. Thus, slippage strongly modulates flanker effects and can, by itself, readily explain the impact of set size. The perceptual load and dilution accounts are, at best, incomplete, and, at worst, not needed.