Top–down control of attention allows us to resist attentional capture by salient stimuli that are irrelevant to our current goals. Recently, it was proposed that attentional suppression of salient distractors contributes to top–down control by biasing attention away from the distractor. With small search displays, attentional suppression of salient distractors may even result in reduced RTs on distractor-present trials. In support of attentional suppression, electrophysiological measures revealed a positivity between 200 and 300 msec contralateral to the distractor, which has been referred to as distractor positivity (PD). We reexamined distractor benefits with small search displays and found that the positivity to the distractor was followed by a negativity to the distractor. The negativity, referred to as N2pc, is considered an index of attentional selection of the contralateral element. Thus, attentional suppression of the distractor (PD) preceded attentional capture (N2pc) by the distractor, which is at odds with the idea that attentional suppression avoids attentional capture by the distractor. Instead, we suggest that the initial “PD” is not a positivity to the distractor but rather a negativity (N2pc) to the contralateral context element, suggesting that, initially, the context captured attention. Subsequently, the distractor was selected because, paradoxically, participants searched all lateral target positions (even when irrelevant) before they examined the vertical positions. Consistent with this idea, search times were shorter for lateral than vertical targets. In summary, the early voltage difference in small search displays is unrelated to distractor suppression but may reflect capture by the context.

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