Visual search is guided by representations of target-defining features (attentional templates) that are activated in a preparatory fashion. Here, we investigated whether these template activation processes are modulated by probabilistic expectations about upcoming search targets. We tracked template activation while observers prepared to search for one or two possible color-defined targets by measuring N2pc components (markers of attentional capture) to task-irrelevant color probes flashed every 200 msec during the interval between search displays. These probes elicit N2pcs only if the corresponding color template is active at the time when the probe appears. Probe N2pcs emerged from about 600 msec before search display onset. They did not differ between one-color and two-color search, indicating that two color templates can be activated concurrently. Critically, probe N2pcs measured during two-color search were identical for probes matching an expected or unexpected color (target color probability: 80% vs. 20%), or one of two equally likely colors. This strongly suggests that probabilistic target color expectations had no impact on search preparation. In marked contrast, subsequent target selection processes were strongly affected by these expectations. We discuss possible explanations for this clear dissociation in the effects of expectations on preparatory search template activation and search target selection, respectively.

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