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Attentional Capture for Tool Images is Driven by the Head End of the Tool, not the Handle
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Tools afford specialized actions that are tied closely to object identity. Although there is mounting evidence that functional objects, such as tools, capture visuospatial attention relative to non-tool competitors, this leaves open the question of which part of a tool drives attentional capture. We used a modified version of the Posner cueing task to determine whether attention is oriented towards the head versus the handle of realistic images of common elongated tools. We compared cueing effects for tools with control stimuli that consisted of images of fruit and vegetables of comparable elongation to the tools. Critically, our displays controlled for lower-level influences on attention that can arise from global shape asymmetries in the image cues. Observers were faster to detect low-contrast targets positioned near the head end versus the handle of tools. As expected, no lateralized performance bias was observed for the control stimuli. In a follow-up experiment, we confirmed that the bias towards tool heads was not due to inhibition of return as a result of early attentional orienting towards tool handles. Finally, we confirmed that real-world exemplars of the tools in the cueing studies were associated more strongly with specific grasping patterns than the elongated fruits and vegetables. Together, our results demonstrate that affordance effects on attentional capture are driven by the head end of a tool. Prioritizing the head end of a tool is adaptive because it ensures that the most relevant region of the object takes priority in selecting an effective motor plan.