Reward-associated stimuli capture the eyes in spite of strategic attentional set

Vision Res. 2013 Nov;92:67-74. doi: 10.1016/j.visres.2013.09.008. Epub 2013 Sep 29.


Theories of reinforcement learning have proposed that the association of reward to visual stimuli may cause these objects to become fundamentally salient and thus attention-drawing. A number of recent studies have investigated the oculomotor correlates of this reward-priming effect, but there is some ambiguity in this literature regarding the involvement of top-down attentional set. Existing paradigms tend to create a situation where participants are actively looking for a reward-associated stimulus before subsequently showing that this selective bias sustains when it no longer has strategic purpose. This perseveration of attentional set is potentially different in nature than the direct impact of reward proposed by theory. Here we investigate the effect of reward on saccadic selection in a paradigm where strategic attentional set is decoupled from the effect of reward. We find that during search for a uniquely oriented target, the receipt of reward following selection of a target characterized by an irrelevant unique color causes subsequent stimuli characterized by this color to be preferentially selected. Importantly, this occurs regardless of whether the color characterizes the target or distractor. Other analyses demonstrate that only features associated with correct selection of the target prime the target representation, and that the magnitude of this effect can be predicted by variability in saccadic indices of feedback processing. These results add to a growing literature demonstrating that reward guides visual selection, often in spite of our strategic efforts otherwise.

Keywords: Eye movements; Oculomotor capture; Reward; Reward priming.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Eye Movements*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Reaction Time
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Reward*
  • Visual Perception*
  • Young Adult