We investigated the ability of salient yet task-irrelevant stimuli to capture attention in two visual search experiments. Participants were presented with circular search arrays that contained a highly salient distractor singleton defined by color and a less salient target singleton defined by form. A component of the event-related potential called the N2pc was used to track the allocation of attention to lateralized positions in the arrays. In Experiment 1, a lateralized distractor elicited an N2pc when a concurrent target was presented on the vertical meridian and thus could not elicit lateralized components such as the N2pc. A similar distractor-elicited N2pc was found in Experiment 2, which was conducted to rule out certain voluntary search strategies. Additionally, in Experiment 2 both the distractor and the target elicited the N2pc component when the two stimuli were presented on opposite sides of the search array. Critically, the distractor-elicited N2pc preceded the target-elicited N2pc on these trials. These results demonstrate that participants shifted attention to the target only after shifting attention to the more salient but task-irrelevant distractor. This pattern of results is in line with theories of attention in which stimulus-driven control plays an integral role.

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