Increased experience amplifies the activation of task-irrelevant category representations

Rachel Wu, Zoe Pruitt, Benjamin D. Zinszer, Olivia S. Cheung

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Prior research has demonstrated the benefits (i.e., task-relevant attentional selection) and costs (i.e., task-irrelevant attentional capture) of prior knowledge on search for an individual target or multiple targets from a category. This study investigated whether the level of experience with particular categories predicts the degree of task-relevant and task-irrelevant activation of item and category representations. Adults with varying levels of dieting experience (measured via 3 subscales of Disinhibition, Restraint, Hunger; Stunkard & Messick, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 29(1), 71–83, 1985) searched for targets defined as either a specific food item (e.g., carrots), or a category (i.e., any healthy or unhealthy food item). Apart from the target-present trials, in the target-absent “foil” trials, when searching for a specific item (e.g., carrots), irrelevant items from the target’s category (e.g., squash) were presented. The ERP (N2pc) results revealed that the activation of task-relevant representations (measured via Exemplar and Category N2pc amplitudes) did not differ based on the degree of experience. Critically, however, increased dieting experience, as revealed by lower Disinhibition scores, predicted activation of task-irrelevant representations (i.e., attentional capture of foils from the target item category). Our results suggest that increased experience with particular categories encourages the rapid activation of category representations even when category information is task irrelevant, and that the N2pc in foil trials could potentially serve as an indication of experience level in future studies on categorization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)522-532
Number of pages11
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2017


  • Attentional selection
  • Categorization
  • Dieting
  • N2pc ERP

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Sensory Systems
  • Linguistics and Language


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