Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Currently, there is considerable controversy regarding the degree to which top-down control can affect attentional capture by salient events. According to the contingent capture hypothesis, attentional capture by a salient stimulus is contingent on a match between the properties of the stimulus and top-down attentional control settings. In contrast, bottom-up saliency accounts argue that the initial capture of attention is determined solely by the relative salience of the stimulus, and the effect of top-down attentional control is limited to effects on the duration of attentional engagement on the capturing stimulus. In the present study, we tested these competing accounts by utilizing the N2pc event-related potential component to track the locus of attention during an attentional capture task. The results were completely consistent with the contingent capture hypothesis: An N2pc wave was elicited only by distractors that possessed the target-defining attribute. In a second experiment, we expanded upon this finding by exploring the effect of target-distractor similarity on the duration that attention dwells at the distractor location. In this experiment, only distractors possessing the target-defining attribute (color) captured visuospatial attention to their location and the N2pc increased in duration and in magnitude when the capture distractor also shared a second target attribute (category membership). Finally, in three additional control experiments, we replicated the finding of an N2pc generated by distractors, only if they shared the target-defining attribute. Thus, our results demonstrate that attentional control settings influence both which stimuli attract attention and to what extent they are processed.