Fortune and reversals of fortune in visual search: Reward contingencies for pop-out targets affect search efficiency and target repetition effects

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2010 Jul;72(5):1229-36. doi: 10.3758/APP.72.5.1229.


Rewards have long been known to modulate overt behavior. But their possible impact on attentional and perceptual processes is less well documented. Here, we study whether the (changeable) reward level associated with two different pop-out targets might affect visual search and trial-to-trial target repetition effects (see Maljkovic & Nakayama, 1994). Observers searched for a target diamond shape with a singleton color among distractor diamond shapes of another color (e.g., green among red or vice versa) and then judged whether the target had a notch at its top or bottom. Correct judgments led to reward, with symbolic feedback indicating this immediately; actual rewards accumulated for receipt at study end. One particular target color led to a higher (10:1) reward for 75% of its correct judgments, whereas the other singleton target color (counterbalanced over participants) yielded the higher reward on only 25% of the trials. We measured search performance in terms of inverse efficiency (response time/proportion correct). The reward schedules not only led to better performance overall for the more rewarding target color, but also increased trial-to-trial priming for successively repeated targets in that color. The actual level of reward received on the preceding trial affected this, as did (orthogonally) the likely level. When reward schedules were reversed within blocks, without explicit instruction, corresponding reversal of the impact on search performance emerged within around 6 trials, asymptoting at around 15 trials, apparently without the observers' explicit knowledge of the contingency. These results establish that pop-out search and target repetition effects can be influenced by target reward levels, with search performance and repetition effects dynamically tracking changes in reward contingency.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal
  • Attention*
  • Color Perception*
  • Discrimination Learning*
  • Feedback, Psychological
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term
  • Middle Aged
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Practice, Psychological
  • Psychophysics
  • Reinforcement Schedule
  • Reversal Learning*
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult