Close encounters of the distracting kind: Explaining the cause of visual tracking errors.

Gi Yeul Bae, & Jonathan Flombaum (2012, Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 74, 703-715).


Why can we track only so many objects? We addressed this question by asking when and how tracking errors emerge. To test the hypothesis that many tracking errors are target/nontarget confusions emerging from close encounters, we compared standard multiple-object tracking trials with trials on which a nontarget turned a random color whenever it approached within 4° of a target. This manipulation significantly improved performance by alleviating the correspondence challenge of a close encounter. Two control experiments showed that color change benefits were not merely due to target recovery. Follow-up experiments demonstrated that color change benefits did not accrue monotonically with distance but, instead, seemed to obey a step function; and an additional experiment demonstrated that, without color changes, the frequency of close encounters predicts tracking performance. Taken together, these experiments suggest that uncertainty about target location imposes the primary constraint on tracking, at times causing errors by leading to confusions between targets and nontargets.