Figural properties are prioritized for search under conditions of uncertainty: Setting boundary conditions on claims that figures automatically attract attention

Mary A Peterson, Andrew J. Mojica, Elizabeth Salvagio, Ruth Kimchi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

3 Scopus citations


Nelson and Palmer (2007) concluded that figures/figural properties automatically attract attention, after they found that participants were faster to detect/discriminate targets appearing where a portion of a familiar object was suggested in an otherwise ambiguous display. We investigated whether these effects are truly automatic and whether they generalize to another figural property—convexity. We found that Nelson and Palmer’s results do generalize to convexity, but only when participants are uncertain regarding when and where the target will appear. Dependence on uncertainty regarding target location/timing was also observed for familiarity. Thus, although we could replicate and extend Nelson and Palmer’s results, our experiments showed that figures do not automatically draw attention. In addition, our research went beyond Nelson and Palmer’s, in that we were able to separate figural properties from perceived figures. Because figural properties are regularities that predict where objects lie in the visual field, our results join other evidence that regularities in the environment can attract attention. More generally, our results are consistent with Bayesian theories in which priors are given more weight under conditions of uncertainty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)180-199
Number of pages20
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017



  • Figure-ground segregtation
  • Grouping
  • Perceptual organization
  • Selective attention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Sensory Systems

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