Task set and instructions influence the weight of figural priors: A psychophysical study with extremal edges and familiar configuration

Tandra Ghose, Mary A. Peterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


In figure–ground organization, the figure is defined as a region that is both “shaped” and “nearer.” Here we test whether changes in task set and instructions can alter the outcome of the cross-border competition between figural priors that underlies figure assignment. Extremal edge (EE), a relative distance prior, has been established as a strong figural prior when the task is to report “which side is nearer?” In three experiments using bipartite stimuli, EEs competed and cooperated with familiar configuration, a shape prior for figure assignment in a “which side is shaped?” task.” Experiment 1 showed small but significant effects of familiar configuration for displays sketching upright familiar objects, although “shaped-side” responses were predominantly determined by EEs. In Experiment 2, instructions regarding the possibility of perceiving familiar shapes were added. Now, although EE remained the dominant prior, the figure was perceived on the familiar-configuration side of the border on a significantly larger percentage of trials across all display types. In Experiment 3, both task set (nearer/shaped) and the presence versus absence of instructions emphasizing that familiar objects might be present were manipulated within subjects. With familiarity thus “primed,” effects of task set emerged when EE and familiar configuration favored opposite sides as figure. Thus, changing instructions can modulate the weighing of figural priors for shape versus distance in figure assignment in a manner that interacts with task set. Moreover, we show that the influence of familiar parts emerges in participants without medial temporal lobe/ perirhinal cortex brain damage when instructions emphasize that familiar objects might be present.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2709-2727
Number of pages19
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 2021


  • Depth ordering
  • Extremal edges
  • Familiar configuration
  • Familiar parts
  • Figural priors
  • Figure–ground perception
  • Perceptual organization
  • Shape perception
  • Task instructions
  • Task set

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Sensory Systems
  • Linguistics and Language


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