Top-down then automatic: Instructions can continue to influence visual search when no longer actively implemented

Brett A. Cochrane*, Jay Pratt, Bruce Milliken

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The present study investigated the automaticity of top-down instructions in visual search when the instruction was no longer actively implemented. To do so, we exploited the Priming of Pop-out (PoP) effect, a selection history phenomenon that reflects faster responses when the target and distractor colors are repeated than switched across trials of singleton search. We then had participants perform a color singleton search task where they implemented the instruction of imagining the opposite color of the previous target, which put the target colors underlying PoP and the imagery instruction in opposition. To assess automaticity, on some trials participants were instructed to stop implementing the imagery instruction. When the imagery instruction was implemented, responses were faster when the target and distractor colors switched (i.e., imagery congruent) than repeated (i.e., imagery incongruent) across search displays – a pattern of results opposite to the PoP effect. When participants were to not implement this instruction, the PoP effect was absent, indicating the imagery instruction had a lingering influence on visual search. This remained true even when participants reported successfully not implementing the instruction, and only when the imagery abandonment instruction was supplanted by a different top-down task was the lingering influence removed such that the PoP effect returned. Overall, the present study demonstrates that top-down instructions can continue to influence visual search despite the will of the observer.

Original languageEnglish
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Early online date31 Aug 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 31 Aug 2022


  • Priming of pop-out
  • Selection history
  • Top-down
  • Visual search


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