Don’t let it distract you: how information about the availability of reward affects attentional selection


Previous research has shown that attentional selection is affected by reward contingencies: previously selected and rewarded stimuli continue to capture attention even if the reward contingencies are no longer in place. In the current study, we investigated whether attentional selection also is affected by stimuli that merely signal the magnitude of reward available on a given trial but, crucially, have never had instrumental value. In a series of experiments, we show that a stimulus signaling high reward availability captures attention even when that stimulus is and was never physically salient or part of the task set, and selecting it is harmful for obtaining reward. Our results suggest that irrelevant reward-signaling stimuli capture attention, because participants have learned about the relationship between the stimulus and reward. Importantly, we only observed learning after initial attentional prioritization of the reward signaling stimulus. We conclude that nonsalient, task-irrelevant but reward-signaling stimuli can affect attentional selection above and beyond top-down or bottom-up attentional control, however, only after such stimuli were initially prioritized for selection.

Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 79(8), 2275-2298