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Previous work on visual search has suggested that only a single attentional template can be prioritized at any given point in time. Grouping features into objects and objects into categories can facilitate search performance by maximizing the amount of information carried by an attentional template. From infancy to adulthood, earlier studies on perceptual similarity have shown that consistent features increase the likelihood of grouping features into objects (e.g., Quinn & Bhatt, Psychological Science. 20:933-938, 2009) and objects into categories (e.g., shape bias; Landau, Smith, & Jones, Cognitive Development. 3:299-321, 1988). Here we asked whether lower-level, intra-item similarity facilitates higher-level categorization, despite inter-item dissimilarity. Adults participated in four visual search tasks in which targets were defined as either one item (a specific alien) or a category (any alien) with either similar features (e.g., circle belly shape and circle back spikes) or dissimilar features (e.g., circle belly shape and triangle back spikes). Using behavioral and neural measures (i.e., the N2pc event-related potential component, which typically emerges 200 ms poststimulus), we found that intra-item feature similarity facilitated categorization, despite dissimilar features across the category items. Our results demonstrate that feature similarity builds novel categories and activates a task-appropriate abstract categorical search template. In other words, grouping at the lower, item level facilitates grouping at the higher, category level, which allows us to overcome efficiency limitations in visual search.

Original publication




Journal article


Atten Percept Psychophys

Publication Date





749 - 760


Categorization, N2pc, Visual search