Visual selective attention and the effects of monetary rewards

Psychol Sci. 2006 Mar;17(3):222-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01689.x.


Outcomes of actions, in the form of rewards and punishments, are known to shape behavior. For example, an action followed by reward will be more readily elicited on subsequent encounters with the same stimuli and context -- a phenomenon known as the law of effect. These consequences of rewards (and punishments) are important because they reinforce adaptive behaviors at the expense of competing ones, thus increasing fitness of the organism in its environment. However, it is unknown whether similar influences regulate covert mental processes, such as visual selective attention. Visual selective attention allows privileged processing of task-relevant information, while inhibiting distracting contextual elements. Using variable monetary rewards as arbitrary feedback on performance, we tested whether acts of attentional selection, and in particular the resulting aftereffects, can be modulated by their consequences. Results show that the efficacy of visual selective attention can be sensibly adjusted by external feedback. Specifically, although lingering inhibition of distractors is robust after highly rewarded selections, it is eliminated after poorly rewarded selections. This powerful feature of visual selective attention provides attentive processes with both flexibility and self-regulation properties.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reward*
  • Students / psychology
  • Time Factors
  • Visual Perception / physiology*