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Attention scales according to inferred real-world object size


Natural scenes consist of objects of varying shapes and sizes. The impact of object size on visual perception has been well-demonstrated, from classic mental imagery experiments1, to recent studies of object representations reporting topographic organization of object size in the occipito-temporal cortex2. While the role of real-world physical size in perception is clear, the effect of inferred size on attentional selection is ill-defined. Here, we investigate whether inferred real-world object size influences attentional allocation. Across five experiments, attentional allocation was measured in objects of equal retinal size, but varied in inferred real-world size (for example, domino, bulldozer). Following each experiment, participants rated the real-world size of each object. We hypothesized that, if inferred real-world size influences attention, selection in retinal size-matched objects should be less efficient in larger objects. This effect should increase with greater attentional demand. Predictions were supported by faster identified targets in objects inferred to be small than large, with costlier attentional shifting in large than small objects when attentional demand was high. Critically, there was a direct correlation between the rated size of individual objects and response times (and shifting costs). Finally, systematic degradation of size inference proportionally reduced object size effect. It is concluded that, along with retinal size, inferred real-world object size parametrically modulates attention. These findings have important implications for models of attentional control and invite sensitivity to object size for future studies that use real-world images in psychological research.

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The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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This work was supported by a National Science Foundation grant no. BCS-1534823 to S.S. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. We thank G. Malcolm, D. Kravitz and M. Behrmann for insightful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. Special thanks go to M. Peterson for suggesting a spatial frequency control experiment reported in experiment 3.

Author information

A.J.C. and S.S. contributed to theoretical motivation, developed the study design and wrote the paper. A.J.C. programmed and conducted the experiments, performed data collection and analysis. J.C.N. and P.S.S. assisted with theoretical motivation, programming experiments and data collection, and provided revisions on manuscript drafts.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Sarah Shomstein.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Results, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References, Supplementary Figures 1–6

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Experimental design.

Domino (a,d), Agarunov Oktay-Abraham; pool table (a,c), Juan Pablo Bravo; outlet (b), Blaise Sewell (all icons reproduced from https://thenounproject.com/)

Fig. 2: Data for experiment 1.
Fig. 3: Data for experiment 2, comparison across all scrambling conditions.

Domino, Agarunov Oktay-Abraham (reproduced from https://thenounproject.com/)

Fig. 4: Data for experiment 3.