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Constancy bias: When we “fill in the blanks” of unattended or forgotten stimuli

, Stefan Van Der Stigchel
Published: 19 August 2019

Abstract: Our ability to form predictions about the behavior of objects outside our focus of attention and to recognize when those expectations have been violated is critical to our survival. One principle that greatly influences our beliefs about unattended stimuli is that of constancy, or the tendency to assume objects outside our attention have remained constant, and the next time we attend to them they will be unchanged. Although this phenomenon is familiar from research on inattentional blindness, it is currently unclear when constancy is assumed and what conditions are adequate to convince us that unattended stimuli have likely undergone a change while outside of our attentional spotlight. Using a simple change-detection task, we sought to show that unattended stimuli are strongly predisposed to be perceived as unchanging when presented on constant, unchanging backgrounds; however, when stimuli were presented with significant incidental visual activity, participants were no longer biased towards change rejection. We found that participants were far more likely to report that a change had occurred if target presentation was accompanied by salient, incidental visual activity. We take these results to indicate that when an object is not represented in working memory, we use environmental conditions to judge whether or not these items are likely to have undergone a change or remained constant.
Keywords: Attention / Change detection / Inattentional blindness / Working memory

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