August 2016
Volume 16, Issue 12
Open Access
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2016
Attentional trade-offs driven by resource scarcity
Author Affiliations
  • Brandon Tomm
    Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia
  • Jiaying Zhao
    Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia
Journal of Vision September 2016, Vol.16, 1038. doi:
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      Brandon Tomm, Jiaying Zhao; Attentional trade-offs driven by resource scarcity. Journal of Vision 2016;16(12):1038.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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Operating with limited resources induces an attentional focus on the task at hand, allowing efficient performance, but at the same time such focus may come with a cost. Specifically, scarcity may cause a failure to notice useful information in the environment, even if the information can alleviate the condition of scarcity. This neglect may arise as a result of attentional narrowing, and can explain a range of counter-productive behaviors of the poor (e.g., neglecting benefit programs). We propose that scarcity presents urgent demands that hijack attentional resources, inducing a focus on task-relevant information, but at the same time a neglect of other potentially important information. To directly examine how scarcity tunes attention, we presented participants with a restaurant menu including a list of food items, price information, and calorie information for each item. At the bottom of the menu we included a discount to measure neglect of beneficial information. Participants were randomly assigned to place a meal order with a small budget ($20; poor condition) or a large budget ($100; rich condition). Participants were eye-tracked throughout the experiment. Those in the poor condition prioritized the price information over the food items and the calorie information, compared to those in the rich condition. Critically, poor participants neglected the discount information, even though the discount can alleviate the condition of scarcity. In follow-up memory experiments, participants completed a surprise memory task after their meal order, and we found that the poor participants were more accurate in recalling price information than the rich participants, yet they were no different in calorie recall accuracy. The results suggest that scarcity draws attention to task-relevant information, and selectively facilitates memory encoding. This new account reveals the attentional tradeoffs under scarcity, and can help explain why the poor individuals engage in counterproductive behaviors.

Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2016


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