How Do People Perform an Inspection Time Task? An Examination of Visual Illusions, Task Experience, and Blinking

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In the inspection time (IT) paradigm, participants view two lines of unequal length (called the Pi-figure) for a short exposure time, and then judge which of the two lines was longer. Early research has interpreted IT as a simple index of mental speed, which does not involve motor activity. However, more recent studies have associated IT with higher-level cognitive mechanisms, including focused attention, task experience, and the strategic use of visual illusions. The extent to which these factors affect IT is still a source of debate. We used an eye-tracker to capture participants’ (N = 147) visual attention while performing IT trials. Results showed that blinking was time-dependent, with participants blinking less when the Pi-figure was visible as compared to before and after. Blinking during the presentation of the Pi-figure correlated negatively with response accuracy. Also, participants who reported seeing a brightness illusion had a higher response accuracy than those who did not. The first experiment was repeated with new participants (N = 159), enhanced task instructions, and the inclusion of practice trials. Results showed substantially improved response accuracy compared to the first experiment, and no significant difference in response accuracy between those who did and did not report illusions. IT response accuracy correlated modestly (r = 0.18) with performance on a short Raven’s advanced progressive matrices task. In conclusion, performance at the IT task is affected by task familiarity and involves motor activity in the form of blinking. Visual illusions may be an epiphenomenon of understanding the IT task.
Original languageEnglish
Article number34
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Cognition
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Attention
  • Response accuracy
  • Response speed


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