Delayed disengagement of attention from distractors signalling reward

Poppy Watson*, Daniel Pearson, Jan Theeuwes, Steven B. Most, Mike E. Le Pelley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Attention refers to the set of cognitive mechanisms that facilitate the prioritization of incoming sensory information. Existing research suggests that motivationally salient stimuli, such as those associated with reward, are prioritized by the attention system and that this prioritization occurs independently of an observer's goals. Specifically, studies of visual search have shown that stimuli signalling the availability of monetary reward are more likely to capture eye movements, even when participants are motivated to ignore such stimuli. In the current study we ask whether reward magnitude influences only the likelihood that stimuli will capture spatial attention, or whether reward also influences the ease with which people can disengage attention from a location when they are motivated to move their attention elsewhere. Three experiments examined the time taken to disengage from a centrally presented distractor that signalled the availability of high or low reward. We found that participants took longer to move their eyes away from a high-reward distractor, even though this came at financial cost (Experiment 1), that participants were unable to suppress a high-reward distractor consistently presented at the central location (Experiment 2), that slower responding was not due to behavioural freezing in the presence of a signal of high reward (Experiment 3), and that slower responding persisted even when rewards were no longer available (Experiment 4). These results indicate that reward modulates attentional disengagement: signals of high reward hold attention for longer, even when this is counterproductive for performance of ongoing tasks. Our findings further highlight the role of reward in the conflict between automatic and goal-directed attentional processing.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104125
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
Early online date18 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2020


  • Attention
  • Attentional capture
  • Cognitive control
  • Disengagement
  • Reward


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