When a target stimulus occurs in the presence of distracters, decisions are less accurate. But how exactly do distracters affect choices? Here, we explored this question using measurement of human behaviour, psychophysical reverse correlation and computational modelling. We contrasted two models: one in which targets and distracters had independent influence on choices (independent model) and one in which distracters modulated choices in a way that depended on their similarity to the target (interaction model). Across three experiments, participants were asked to make fine orientation judgments about the tilt of a target grating presented adjacent to an irrelevant distracter. We found strong evidence for the interaction model, in that decisions were more sensitive when target and distracter were consistent relative to when they were inconsistent. This consistency bias occurred in the frame of reference of the decision, that is, it operated on decision values rather than on sensory signals, and surprisingly, it was independent of spatial attention. A normalization framework, where target features are normalized by the expectation and variability of the local context, successfully captures the observed pattern of results.
PLoS Comput Biol