Understanding the collinear masking effect in visual search through eye tracking


Recent research has reported that, while both orientation contrast and collinearity increase target salience in visual search, a combination of the two counterintuitively masks a local target. Through eye-tracking and eye-movement analysis with hidden Markov models (EMHMM), here we showed that this collinear masking effect was associated with reduced eye-fixation consistency (as measured in entropy) at the central fixation cross prior to the search display presentation. As a decreased precision of saccade landing position is shown to be related to attention shift away from the saccadic target, our result suggested that the collinear masking effect may be related to attention shift to a non-saccadic-goal location in expectation of the search display before saccading to the central fixation cross. This attention shift may consequently interfere with attention capture by the collinear distractor containing the target, resulting in the masking effect. In contrast, although older adults had longer response times, more dispersed eye-movement pattern, and lower eye-movement consistency than young adults during visual search, the two age groups did not differ in the masking effect, suggesting limited contribution from ageing-related cognitive decline. Thus, participants’ pre-saccadic attention shift prior to search may be an important factor influencing their search behavior.

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  1. 1.

    In a separate analysis, we conducted two separate 2 × 2 ANOVA to test our two hypotheses, i.e., an interaction between age group and stimulus condition, and an interaction between masking group and stimulus condition, and obtained similar results. See Tables A5 to A10 in the Online Supplementary Materials.

  2. 2.

    Similar results were obtained when we did robust correlation analysis by winsorizing the masking effect in RT with a 95% confidence interval: A significant positive correlation between masking effect and overall entropy in the overlap condition, r(78) = .41, p < 0.01.


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We are grateful to the RGC of Hong Kong (#17609117 to Hsiao), the Ministry of Science and Technology of Taiwan (MOST107-2410-H-002-129-MY3 to Yeh and MOST106-2420-H-039-002-MY3 to Jingling). We thank Mr. Da Li for his help with data collection, and the Editor and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Li Jingling.

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Hsiao, J.H., Chan, A.B., An, J. et al. Understanding the collinear masking effect in visual search through eye tracking. Psychon Bull Rev (2021). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-021-01944-7

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  • Eye movements
  • Visual search
  • Attention capture
  • Hidden Markov Models