The forest revisited: More on global precedence

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Several issues pertaining to the notion of global precedence, its testing, and its ecological validity are discussed. Global precedence is presented as a claim that, other things being equal, global structure is available in the percept earlier than local features are. It does not state that local processing starts only after global processing is terminated. Since global precedence is a hypothesis about temporal development of percepts, a natural way to test it is to limit exposure duration. Global precedence predicts that local features will be more sensitive to stimulus duration than global ones. An experiment is reported in which subjects were presented with 150 ms exposures of large letters made up of small ones, and had to discriminate either just the large letters or just the small ones. In addition, they had to respond to the presence of a concurrent tone. Local letters were responded to more slowly than global ones, and were associated with more tone errors. The variation of the global level as well as the consistency between the identities of the levels affected the latency to the local letter, but not vice versa. A single small-letter control-condition was used to rule out an explanation in terms of relative size. The effects, albeit weaker than some previous results, are compatible with the hypothesis tested. The results of this experiment are interpreted in the context of an extensive discussion of findings in the paradigm and the generality of the phenomenon assumed to underly them. Possible mechanisms which may mediate global precedence are evaluated. Among them are relative size, lateral masking, diffuse attention, and spatial uncertainty. The magnitude, or even the presence, of global precedence depends on some factors, most prominent of which are visual angle and retinal position. Ecological considerations suggest that proximal sizes and eccentricities which favor global features may be very frequent. Some further subtleties of, as well as problems with, the logic of compound letters are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-32
Number of pages32
JournalPsychological Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1981

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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