Searching in the dark: Cognitive relevance drives attention in real-world scenes


We investigated whether the deployment of attention in scenes is better explained by visual salience or by cognitive relevance. In two experiments, participants searched for target objects in scene photographs. The objects appeared in semantically appropriate locations but were not visually salient within their scenes. Search was fast and efficient, with participants much more likely to look to the targets than to the salient regions. This difference was apparent from the first fixation and held regardless of whether participants were familiar with the visual form of the search targets. In the majority of trials, salient regions were not fixated. The critical effects were observed for all 24 participants across the two experiments. We outline a cognitive relevance framework to account for the control of attention and fixation in scenes.


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Correspondence to John M. Henderson.

Additional information

This project was supported by a grant from the Economic and Social Science Research Council U.K. (RES-062-23-1092).

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Henderson, J.M., Malcolm, G.L. & Schandl, C. Searching in the dark: Cognitive relevance drives attention in real-world scenes. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 16, 850–856 (2009).

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  • Visual Search
  • Target Object
  • Salient Region
  • Scene Image
  • Visual Salience