The attentional blink (AB) refers to humans' impaired ability to detect the second of two targets (T2) in a rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) stream of distractors if it appears within 200–600 ms of the first target (T1). Here we examined whether humans' ability to inhibit distractors in the RSVP stream is a key determinant of individual differences in T1 performance and AB magnitude.
We presented subjects with RSVP streams (93.3 ms/item) of letters containing white distractors, a red T1 and a green T2. Subjects' ability to suppress distractors was assessed by determining the extent to which their second target performance was primed by a preceding distractor that shared the same identity as T2. Individual subjects' magnitude of T2 priming from this distractor was found to be negatively correlated with their T1 accuracy and positively related to their AB magnitude. In particular, subjects with attenuated ABs showed negative priming (i.e., worse T2 performance when the priming distractor appeared in the RSVP stream compared to when it was absent), whereas those with large ABs displayed positive priming (i.e., better T2 performance when the priming distractor appeared in the RSVP stream compared to when it was absent). Thus, a subject's ability to suppress distractors, as assessed by T2 priming magnitude, predicted both their T1 performance and AB magnitude.
These results confirm that distractor suppression plays a key role in RSVP target selection and support the hypothesis that the AB results, at least in part, from a failure of distractor inhibition.