The control processes that guide attention to a visual-search target can result in the selection of an irrelevant object with similar features (a distractor). Once attention is captured by such a distractor, search for a subsequent target is momentarily impaired if the two stimuli appear at different locations. The textbook explanation for this impairment is based on the notion of an indivisible focus of attention that moves to the distractor, illuminates a nontarget that subsequently appears at that location, and then moves to the target once the nontarget is rejected. Here, we show that such delayed orienting to the target does not underlie the behavioral cost of distraction. Observers identified a color-defined target appearing within the second of two stimulus arrays. The first array contained irrelevant items, including one that shared the target's color. ERPs were examined to test two predictions stemming from the textbook serial-orienting hypothesis. Namely, when the target and distractor appear at different locations, (1) the target should elicit delayed selection activity relative to same-location trials, and (2) the nontarget search item appearing at the distractor location should elicit selection activity that precedes selection activity tied to the target. Here, the posterior contralateral N2 component was used to track selection of each of these search-array items and the previous distractor. The results supported neither prediction above, thereby disconfirming the serial-orienting hypothesis. Overall, the results show that the behavioral costs of distraction are caused by perceptual and postperceptual competition between concurrently attended target and nontarget stimuli.

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