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Julia GÓmez-Cuerva, Jane E. Raymond; Value associations make irrelevant stimuli especially distracting. Journal of Vision 2010;10(7):258. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/10.7.258.
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Learning and experience lead us to associate reward or punishment value with specific visual objects. Value associations, especially reward associations, are thought to activate dopaminergic systems that may in turn support enhanced attention to such objects. Here we asked whether value associations (reward or punishment) learned in one context could make stimuli especially distracting when irrelevant in other contexts. To explore this possibility, we use a two-phase experimental procedure. First, participants learned to associate different face stimuli with winning, losing, or having no outcome in a simple choice game. Later, a typical ‘flanker’ attention task (with no possibility of winning or losing points) was conducted using the pre-conditioned stimuli or novel stimuli as distractors. Five faces were presented and the task was to categorize the gender of the middle (target) face as quickly as possible. In this task, attentional distraction by flanking stimuli is indexed as a slowing in mean response time (RT) to judge the central target relative to a baseline condition. Here, the target was always a novel face; the baseline was measured using novel faces as flankers (gender congruent or incongruent), and the experimental conditions used the preconditioned faces as flankers. We found that RTs were significantly slower than baseline (regardless of gender congruity) when flankers had been preconditioned with rewards or punishers but not when preconditioned with no outcome. This effect was especially robust for stimuli that had been optimal choices in the choice game, regardless of their association with reward versus punishment. These findings indicate preconditioned value associations play an important role on visual selection processes.
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