Withdrawing attention at little or no cost: detection and discrimination tasks.

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Perception & psychophysics, Volume 60, Number 1, p.1–23 (1998)


0031-5117 (Print)




Adult, Attention, Awareness, Color Perception, Discrimination Learning, Female, Humans, Male, Orientation, Pattern Recognition, Psychophysics, Visual


We used a concurrent-task paradigm to investigate the attentional cost of simple visual tasks. As in earlier studies, we found that detecting a unique orientation in an array of oriented elements ("pop-out") carries little or no attentional cost. Surprisingly, this is true at all levels of performance and holds even when pop-out is barely discriminable. We discuss this finding in the context of our previous report that the attentional cost of stimulus detection is strongly influenced by the presence and nature of other stimuli in the display (Braun, 1994b). For discrimination tasks, we obtained a similarly mixed outcome: Discrimination of letter shape carried a high attentional cost whereas discrimination of color and orientation did not. Taken together, these findings lead us to modify our earlier position on the attentional costs of detection and discrimination tasks (Sagi & Julesz, 1985). We now believe that observers enjoy a significant degree of "ambient" visual awareness outside the focus of attention, permitting them to both detect and discriminate certain visual information. We hypothesize that the information in question is selected by a competition for saliency at the level of early vision.