The Effect of Optimistic Expectancies on Attention Bias: Neural and Behavioral Correlates

Sci Rep. 2020 Apr 16;10(1):6495. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-61440-1.


Optimism bias and positive attention bias are important features of healthy information processing. Recent findings suggest dynamic bidirectional optimism-attention interactions, but the underlying neural mechanisms remain to be identified. The current functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, therefore, investigated the neural mechanisms underlying causal effects of optimistic expectancies on attention. We hypothesized that expectancies guide attention to confirmatory evidence in the environment, with enhanced salience and executive control network (SN/ECN) activity for unexpected information. Moreover, based on previous findings, we anticipated optimistic expectancies to more strongly impact attention and SN/ECN activity than pessimistic expectancies. Expectancies were induced with visual cues in 50 participants; subsequent attention to reward and punishment was assessed in a visual search task. As hypothesized, cues shortened reaction times to expected information, and unexpected information enhanced SN/ECN activity. Notably, these effects were stronger for optimistic than pessimistic expectancy cues. Our findings suggest that optimistic expectancies involve particularly strong predictions of reward, causing automatic guidance of attention to reward and great surprise about unexpected punishment. Such great surprise may be counteracted by visual avoidance of the punishing evidence, as revealed by prior evidence, thereby reducing the need to update (over)optimistic reward expectancies.