Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Perception & Psychophysics 1998, 60 (4), 696-704. Copyright © 1998 The Psychonomic Society. Used by permission.


Human sensitivity to correlational structure between nontargets and likelihood of target presence in a visual letter-search task were studied in two experiments. In each of these experiments, the performance of subjects for whom the nontarget information was altered in the final trial block was compared with the performance of subjects for whom the nontarget information did not change. When stimulus strings were presented individually on a computer screen and subjects were required to make a yes–no decision about target presence (Experiment 1), the change in nontarget structure resulted in increased reaction times for target-absent trials. When subjects searched simultaneously for three possible targets (Experiment 2), the change in nontarget structure produced increased error rates and increased reaction times for both target-absent and target-present trials. Correlations between the amount of predictive information in individual stimulus strings and reaction times also showed that both switching and nonswitching subjects were sensitive to the nontarget context. However, neither self-reports of strategy nor postexperiment choices between context-consistent and -inconsistent letter strings indicated any explicit knowledge of the predictive information in the nontarget stimuli. Subjects can thus acquire and benefit from, apparently without awareness, information about subtle correlational structure in nontarget elements in simple visual search.