Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics

, Volume 76, Issue 6, pp 1577–1589 | Cite as

Setting semantics: conceptual set can determine the physical properties that capture attention

  • Stephanie C. Goodhew
  • William Kendall
  • Susanne Ferber
  • Jay Pratt


The ability of a stimulus to capture visuospatial attention depends on the interplay between its bottom-up saliency and its relationship to an observer’s top-down control set, such that stimuli capture attention if they match the predefined properties that distinguish a searched-for target from distractors (Folk, Remington, & Johnston, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 18, 1030–1044 1992). Despite decades of research on this phenomenon, however, the vast majority has focused exclusively on matches based on low-level physical properties. Yet if contingent capture is indeed a “top-down” influence on attention, then semantic content should be accessible and able to determine which physical features capture attention. Here we tested this prediction by examining whether a semantically defined target could create a control set for particular features. To do this, we had participants search to identify a target that was differentiated from distractors by its meaning (e.g., the word “red” among color words all written in black). Before the target array, a cue was presented, and it was varied whether the cue appeared in the physical color implied by the target word. Across three experiments, we found that cues that embodied the meaning of the word produced greater cuing than cues that did not. This suggests that top-down control sets activate content that is semantically associated with the target-defining property, and this content in turn has the ability to exogenously orient attention.


Spatial attention Contingent capture Semantics Cognitive control Embodied cognition Attentional capture Attention: selective Automaticity 


Author Note

This research was supported by an Ontario Government Postdoctoral Fellowship and an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA DE140101734) awarded to S.C.G., Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) discovery grants awarded to S.F. (261203-13) and J.P. (194537), and an Early Researcher Award and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant awarded to S.F. (106436). The authors thank Nicole Fogel and Samuel Chen for assistance with the data collection.


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Copyright information

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephanie C. Goodhew
    • 1
    • 3
  • William Kendall
    • 1
    • 2
  • Susanne Ferber
    • 1
  • Jay Pratt
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  3. 3.Research School of PsychologyThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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