Interactions between endogenous and exogenous attention during vigilance
The ability to remain vigilant over long periods of time is critical for many everyday tasks, but controlled studies of visual sustained attention show that performance declines over time when observers are required to respond to rare stimulus events (targets) occurring in a sequence of standard stimulus events (nontargets). When target discrimination is perceptually difficult, this vigilance decrement manifests as a decline in perceptual sensitivity. We examined whether sudden-onset stimuli could act as exogenous attentional cues to improve sensitivity during a traditional sustained attention task. Sudden-onset cues presented immediately before each stimulus attenuated the sensitivity decrement, but only when stimulus timing (the interstimulus interval [ISI]) was constant. When stimulus timing was variable, exogenous cues increased overall sensitivity but did not prevent performance decline. Finally, independent of the effects of sudden onsets, a constant ISI improved vigilance performance. Our results demonstrate that exogenous attention enhances perceptual sensitivity during vigilance performance, but that this effect is dependent on observers’ being able to predict the timing of stimulus events. Such a result indicates a strong interaction between endogenous and exogenous attention during vigilance. We relate our findings to a resource model of vigilance, as well as to theories of endogenous and exogenous attention over short time periods.