, Volume 69, Issue 3, pp 382-392

Familiar shapes attract attention in figure-ground displays


We report five experiments that explore the effect of figure-ground factors on attention. We hypothesized that figural cues, such as familiar shape, would draw attention to the figural side in an attentional cuing task using bipartite figure-ground displays. The first two experiments used faces in profile as the familiar shape and found a perceptual advantage for targets presented on the meaningful side of the central contour in detection speed (Experiment 1) and discrimination accuracy (Experiment 2). The third experiment demonstrated the figural advantage in response time (RT) with nine other familiar shapes (including a sea horse, a guitar, a fir tree, etc.), but only when targets appeared in close proximity to the contour. A fourth experiment obtained a figural advantage in a discrimination task with the larger set of familiar shapes. The final experiment ruled out eye movements as a possible confounding factor by replicating the RT advantage for targets on the figural side of face displays when all trials containing eye movements were eliminated. The results are discussed in terms of ecological influences on attention, and are cast within the framework of Yantis and Jonides’s (1984) hypothesis that attention is exogenously drawn to the onset of new perceptual objects. We argue that the figural side constitutes an “object,” whereas the ground side does not, and that figural cues such as shape familiarity are effective in determining which areas represent objects.