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Brandon Tomm, Jiaying Zhao; Scarcity biases attention to motivationally relevant distractors. Journal of Vision 2018;18(10):482. doi: 10.1167/18.10.482.
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Individuals experiencing resource scarcity often demonstrate cognitive and behavioral impairments that can further perpetuate scarcity. Here we examine an attentional mechanism to explain these impairments under scarcity. In an eyetracking experiment (N=210), participants were randomly assigned with a time budget (5 minutes in the poor condition, 20 minutes in the rich condition) to complete a set of Raven's Progressive Matrices and earn as many points as possible. In each trial, one matrix was presented in the center of the screen, and the time remaining and the current trial number were displayed in the periphery. To measure attention, we tracked gaze dwell time and fixations throughout the experiment. Consistent with previous findings, participants in the poor condition had a lower accuracy on Raven's Matrices than those in the rich condition, demonstrating cognitive impairment under scarcity. Importantly, we found that participants in the rich condition spent proportionally longer dwell time on the Raven's Matrices per trial than the poor participants, showing enhanced attentional focus on the task. On the other hand, the poor participants spent proportionally longer dwell time on the current trial number and the time remaining in the periphery. Their eye gaze also showed greater deviations from the matrix at the center. These results suggest that the poor participants spent less time on the focal task, and instead attended to motivationally relevant distractors such as the time remaining and the current trial number in order to keep track of their progress within a limited time budget. The current study provides a new attentional account for the cognitive impairments and counterproductive behaviors under scarcity. Specifically, scarcity draws attention away from the focal task to peripheral distractors that depict the amount of resources available. These findings have important implications for interventions to alleviate the cognitive tax of scarcity.
Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2018
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