Basic-Level Categorization of Intermediate Complexity Fragments Reveals Top-Down Effects of Expertise in Visual Perception

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Visual expertise is usually defined as the superior ability to distinguish between exemplars of a homogeneous category. Here, we ask how real-world expertise manifests at basic-level categorization and assess the contribution of stimulus-driven and top-down knowledge-based factors to this manifestation. Car experts and novices categorized computer-selected image fragments of cars, airplanes, and faces. Within each category, the fragments varied in their mutual information (MI), an objective quantifiable measure of feature diagnosticity. Categorization of face and airplane fragments was similar within and between groups, showing better performance with increasing MI levels. Novices categorized car fragments more slowly than face and airplane fragments, while experts categorized car fragments as fast as face and airplane fragments. The experts' advantage with car fragments was similar across MI levels, with similar functions relating RT with MI level for both groups. Accuracy was equal between groups for cars as well as faces and airplanes, but experts' response criteria were biased toward cars. These findings suggest that expertise does not entail only specific perceptual strategies. Rather, at the basic level, expertise manifests as a general processing advantage arguably involving application of top-down mechanisms, such as knowledge and attention, which helps experts to distinguish between object categories.