Irrelevant learned reward associations disrupt voluntary spatial attention

Attention can be guided involuntarily by physical salience and by non-salient, previously learned reward associations that are currently task-irrelevant. Attention can be guided voluntarily by current goals and expectations. The current study examined, in two experiments, whether irrelevant reward associations could disrupt current, goal-driven, voluntary attention. In a letter-search task, attention was directed voluntarily (i.e., cued) on half the trials by a cue stimulus indicating the hemifield in which the target letter would appear with 100 % accuracy. On the other half of the trials, a cue stimulus was presented, but it did not provide information about the target hemifield (i.e., uncued). On both cued and uncued trials, attention could be involuntarily captured by the presence of a task-irrelevant, and physically non-salient, color, either within the cued or the uncued hemifield. Importantly, one week prior to the letter search task, the irrelevant color had served as a target feature that was predictive of reward in a separate training task. Target identification accuracy was better on cued compared to uncued trials. However, this effect was reduced when the irrelevant, and physically non-salient, reward-associated feature was present in the uncued hemifield. This effect was not observed in a second, control experiment in which the irrelevant color was not predictive of reward during training. Our results indicate that involuntary, value-driven capture can disrupt the voluntary control of spatial attention.

MacLean, M. H., Diaz, G. K. and Giesbrecht, B.
Attention, Perception and Psychophysics
Volume: 78
Number: 7
Pages: 2241-2252
Date: October, 2016
ICB Affiliated Authors: Barry Giesbrecht