Impact of Contextual Guidance and Suppression on Visual Search Efficiency

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Context plays a pivotal role in our daily decision-making processes. For instance, when navigating a familiar city, we often rely on landmarks to guide us. Similarly, in tasks requiring focus, we can enhance our efficiency by disregarding irrelevant surroundings. Nonetheless, the specific ways our brain utilizes context to guide or suppress information in visual searches is still under debate. To explore this, our team member Siyi Chen conducted a visual search study that introduced both context-dependent guidance and suppression scenarios, now published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (PB&R,

In the training session, some visual displays maintained a consistent association between context and target, enhancing predictability. Other displays, however, repeated certain contexts without any indication of the target’s location, presenting a challenge in predicting where the target would appear. In a subsequent test session, these context-target associations were reversed, which provided unique insights.

Findings from the training session highlighted that when context and target locations were consistently aligned, participants showed significant performance gains. However, these gains were reduced in the test phase when the previously learned associations were reversed. Interestingly, while the context-target relationship initially offered substantial benefits, it failed to adapt when conditions changed, showing its inflexibility. On the other hand, the ability to suppress context, despite offering smaller benefits, proved to be more stable and robust across different target changes. These results underscore that learning associated with context and target can be highly beneficial but lacks flexibility. Conversely, the ability to suppress irrelevant context remains a consistent, though modest, advantage when facing changes in target locations.


Chen, S., Müller, H. J., & Shi, Z. (2024). Contextual facilitation: Separable roles of contextual guidance and context suppression in visual search. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.