What is the purpose of attention? One avenue of research has led to the proposal that attention might be crucial for gathering information about the environment, while other lines of study have demonstrated how attention may play a role in guiding behavior to rewarded options. Many experiments that study attention require participants to make a decision based on information acquired discretely at one point in time. In real-world situations, however, we are usually not presented with information about which option to select in such a manner. Rather we must initially search for information, weighing up reward values of options before we commit to a decision. Here, we propose that attention plays a role in both foraging for information and foraging for value. When foraging for information, attention is guided toward the unknown. When foraging for reward, attention is guided toward high reward values, allowing decision-making to proceed by accept-or-reject decisions on the currently attended option. According to this account, attention can be regarded as a low-cost alternative to moving around and physically interacting with the environment-"teleforaging"-before a decision is made to interact physically with the world. To track the timecourse of attention, we asked participants to seek out and acquire information about two gambles by directing their gaze, before choosing one of them. Participants often made multiple refixations on items before making a decision. Their eye movements revealed that early in the trial, attention was guided toward information, i.e., toward locations that reduced uncertainty about value. In contrast, late in the trial, attention was guided by expected value of the options. At the end of the decision period, participants were generally attending to the item they eventually chose. We suggest that attentional foraging shifts from an uncertainty-driven to a reward-driven mode during the evolution of a decision, permitting decisions to be made by an engage-or-search strategy.
Keywords: attention; bayesian updating; expected value; foraging; information; risk; saccades; uncertainty.