We bisected the sequence of processing into operations taking place before or after the engagement of visual–spatial attention during a difficult search task using event-related potentials. We were able to assign variance in RTs associated with experimental factor effects to phases of processing by examining stimulus-locked (SLpcN) and response-locked (RLpcN) posterior contralateral negativity. Participants searched for a gray square with one gap among gray squares with two gaps. The number of displayed items (set size) and the number of response alternatives were varied. Both experimental manipulations affected the onset latency of the RLpcN, whereas the SLpcN showed small or no latency effects, suggesting they had effects after the initial deployment of attention. Moreover, amplitude effects in the RLpcN and SLpcN behaved similarly. Most importantly, different aspects of the RLpcN dissociated the experimental manipulations: Set size primarily affected processing between RLpcN onset and peak amplitude of the RLpcN, whereas the number of response alternatives affected the onset latency and the latency of peak amplitude of RLpcN. These results show how RLpcN activity can dissociate factor effects that are not separable with SLpcN activity during difficult search.

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