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Breaking the cardinal rule: The impact of interitem interaction and attentional priority on the cardinal biases in orientation working memory


Although it is not typically assumed in influential models of visual working memory (WM), representations in WM are systematically biased by multiple factors. Orientation representations are biased away from the cardinal axis (i.e., cardinal bias) and they are biased away from or toward the other orientation simultaneously held in WM (i.e., interitem interaction). The present study investigated the extent to which these two bias mechanisms interact in WM. In Experiment 1, participants remembered two sequentially presented orientations and reproduced both orientations after a short delay. Cardinal biases were assessed separately for the trials where the two mechanisms produce biases in the same direction (i.e., congruent trials) and the trials where they produce biases in the opposite direction (i.e., incongruent trials). Whereas congruent trials exhibited a typical cardinal bias, incongruent trials exhibited no cardinal bias, demonstrating that the cardinal bias was canceled out by the interitem interaction. Follow-up experiments extended these results by manipulating attentional priority for the two orientations by means of precue (Experiment 2) and postcue (Experiment 3). In both experiments, attentionally prioritized items exhibited a typical cardinal bias irrespective of the congruency whereas attentionally unprioritized items exhibited a reversal of the cardinal bias in the incongruent trials, demonstrating that selective attention modulates the influence of the interitem interaction. Together, these results suggest that WM leverages information about specific stimuli and their relationship to support a given behavioral goal.

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    Although excluding errors larger than the smallest orientation difference does not completely remove swap errors, they can only produce attraction biases, which should decrease the overall repulsion bias observed in the present study.


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Author information




G.B. designed the study, collected and analyzed data, and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Gi-Yeul Bae.

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Approval was obtained from the ethics committee of Arizona State University. The procedures used in this study adhere to the tenets of the Declaration of Helsinki.

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Freely available statistical software (R) was used for the data analyses.

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Bae, GY. Breaking the cardinal rule: The impact of interitem interaction and attentional priority on the cardinal biases in orientation working memory. Atten Percept Psychophys (2021).

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  • Cardinal bias
  • Interitem interaction
  • Selective attention
  • Visual working memory