Contextual cost: When a visual-search target is not where it should be

Tal Makovski, Yuhong V. Jiang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Visual search is often facilitated when the search display occasionally repeats, revealing a contextual-cueing effect. According to the associative-learning account, contextual cueing arises from associating the display configuration with the target location. However, recent findings emphasizing the importance of local context near the target have given rise to the possibility that low-level repetition priming may account for the contextual-cueing effect. This study distinguishes associative learning from local repetition priming by testing whether search is directed toward a target's expected location, even when the target is relocated. After participants searched for a T among Ls in displays that repeated 24 times, they completed a transfer session where the target was relocated locally to a previously blank location (Experiment 1) or to an adjacent distractor location (Experiment 2). Results revealed that contextual cueing decreased as the target appeared farther away from its expected location, ultimately resulting in a contextual cost when the target swapped locations with a local distractor. We conclude that target predictability is a key factor in contextual cueing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)216-225
Number of pages10
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2010
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Correspondence should be addressed to Tal Makovski, N218 Elliott Hall, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA. Email: This study was supported in part by National Institutes of Health Grant NIH MH071788 to Yuhong Jiang. We thank Melina Kunar, Khena Swallow, Derrick Watson, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions.


  • Contextual cueing
  • Repetition priming
  • Visual search


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