Age-related differences during visual search: the role of contextual expectations and cognitive control mechanisms

Miguel T Borges, Eunice G Fernandes, Moreno I Coco*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


During the visual search, cognitive control mechanisms activate to inhibit distracting information and efficiently orient attention towards contextually relevant regions likely to contain the search target. Cognitive ageing is known to hinder cognitive control mechanisms, however little is known about their interplay with contextual expectations, and their role in visual search. In two eye-tracking experiments, we compared the performance of a younger and an older group of participants searching for a target object varying in semantic consistency with the search scene (e.g., a basket of bread vs. a clothes iron in a restaurant scene) after being primed with contextual information either congruent or incongruent with it (e.g., a restaurant vs. a bathroom). Primes were administered either as scenes (Experiment 1) or words (Experiment 2, which included scrambled words as neutral primes). Participants also completed two inhibition tasks (Stroop and Flanker) to assess their cognitive control. Older adults had greater difficulty than younger adults when searching for inconsistent objects, especially when primed with congruent information (Experiment 1), or a scrambled word (neutral condition, Experiment 2). When the target object violates the semantics of the search context, congruent expectations or perceptual distractors, have to be suppressed through cognitive control, as they are irrelevant to the search. In fact, higher cognitive control, especially in older participants, was associated with better target detection in these more challenging conditions, although it did not influence eye-movement responses. These results shed new light on the links between cognitive control, contextual expectations and visual attention in healthy ageing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)489-516
Number of pages28
JournalAging Neuropsychology and Cognition
Issue number4
Early online date16 Jul 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

This work was supported by the Leverhulme Trust with an Early Career Research Fellowship (ECF-2014-205) awarded to MIC.


  • Visual search
  • cognitive ageing
  • contextual expectations
  • cognitive control
  • eye-tracking


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