Document Type

Dissertation

Date of Degree

Fall 2015

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Psychology

First Advisor

Shaun P. Vecera

Abstract

The environment is abundant with visual information. Each moment, this information competes for representation in the brain. From billboards and pop-up ads to smart phones and flat screens, in modern society our attention is constantly drawn from one salient object to the next. Learning how to focus on the objects that are most important for the current task is a major developmental hurdle. Fortunately, rewards help us to learn what is important by providing feedback signals to the brain. Sometimes, in adolescence for example, reward seeking can become the pre-potent response. This can ultimately lead to risky and impulsive behaviors that have devastating consequences. Until recently, little has been known about how rewards operate to influence the focus of attention.

In this document, I first demonstrate the robustness of various behavioral paradigms designed to measure reward processing in vision. I found that even mundane rewards, such as images of money, are effective enough to prime the attentional system on the basis of value. Remarkably, this effect extended to images of Monopoly money. This observation suggests that whole classes of visual stimuli, such as food, pornography, commercial logos, corporate brands, or money, each with its own reward salience value, are likely vying for representation in the brain. This work has implications for the growing digital economy as it suggests that novel value systems, such as the digital currency Bitcoin, could eventually become as psychologically relevant as physical currency provided sufficient use and exposure. Likewise, this work has implications for gamification in the industrial setting.

Next, I examined the sensitivity of the system to make optimal economic decisions. When faced with an economic choice normative theories of decision-making suggest that the economic actor will choose the response that affords the greatest expected utility. Contrary to this account, I developed a new behavioral paradigm (reward contingent capture) and reveal that the attentional homunculus is a fuzzy mathematician. Specifically, I found that low-level attentional processes conform to the same probability distortions observed in prospect theory. This finding supports a unified value learning mechanism across several domains of cognition and converges with evidence from monkey models.

Then, I demonstrate the influence of rewards on high-order search parameters. I found that images of money can implicitly encourage observers to preferentially adopt one of two search strategies – one that values salience versus one that values goals. Together, my results expose two distinct ways in which the very same rewards can affect attentional behavior – by tuning the salience of specific features and by shaping global search mode settings.

Lastly, I draw from my empirical results to present a unified model of the manifold role of rewards on visual attention. This model makes clear predictions for clinical applications of rewarded attention paradigms because it incorporates a dimension of complexity upon which learning processes can operate on attention. Thus, future work should acknowledge how individual traits such as developmental trajectory, impulsivity, and risk-seeking factors differentially interact with low- and high-level attentional processes.

In sum, this document puts forward the notion that rewards serve a compelling role in visual awareness. The key point however is not that rewards can have an effect on attention but that due to the nature of visual processing, reward signals are likely always tuning attention. In this way we can consider reward salience an attentional currency. This means then that deciding where to attend is a matter of gains and losses.

Public Abstract

The environment is abundant with visual information. Each moment, this information competes for representation in the brain. From billboards and pop-up ads to smart phones and flat screens, in modern society our attention is constantly drawn from one salient object to the next. Learning how to focus on the objects that are most important for the current task is a major developmental hurdle. Fortunately, rewards help us to learn what is important by providing feedback signals to the brain. Sometimes, in adolescence for example, reward seeking can become the pre-potent response. This can ultimately lead to risky and impulsive behaviors that have devastating consequences. Until recently, little has been known about how rewards operate to influence the focus of attention.

In this document, I first demonstrate the robustness of various behavioral paradigms designed to measure reward processing in vision. I found that even mundane rewards, such as images of money, are effective enough to prime the attentional system on the basis of value. Remarkably, this effect extended to images of Monopoly money. This observation suggests that whole classes of visual stimuli, such as food, pornography, commercial logos, corporate brands, or money, each with its own reward salience value, are likely vying for representation in the brain. This work has implications for the growing digital economy as it suggests that novel value systems, such as the digital currency Bitcoin, could eventually become as psychologically relevant as physical currency provided sufficient use and exposure. Likewise, this work has implications for gamification in the industrial setting.

Next, I examined the sensitivity of the system to make optimal economic decisions. When faced with an economic choice normative theories of decision-making suggest that the economic actor will choose the response that affords the greatest expected utility. Contrary to this account, I developed a new behavioral paradigm (reward contingent capture) and reveal that the attentional homunculus is a fuzzy mathematician. Specifically, I found that low-level attentional processes conform to the same probability distortions observed in prospect theory. This finding supports a unified value learning mechanism across several domains of cognition and converges with evidence from monkey models.

Then, I demonstrate the influence of rewards on high-order search parameters. I found that images of money can implicitly encourage observers to preferentially adopt one of two search strategies – one that values salience versus one that values goals. Together, my results expose two distinct ways in which the very same rewards can affect attentional behavior – by tuning the salience of specific features and by shaping global search mode settings.

Lastly, I draw from my empirical results to present a unified model of the manifold role of rewards on visual attention. This model makes clear predictions for clinical applications of rewarded attention paradigms because it incorporates a dimension of complexity upon which learning processes can operate on attention. Thus, future work should acknowledge how individual traits such as developmental trajectory, impulsivity, and risk-seeking factors differentially interact with low- and high-level attentional processes.

In sum, this document puts forward the notion that rewards serve a compelling role in visual awareness. The key point however is not that rewards can have an effect on attention but that due to the nature of visual processing, reward signals are likely always tuning attention. In this way we can consider reward salience an attentional currency. This means then that deciding where to attend is a matter of gains and losses.

Keywords

publicabstract, Money, Prospect Theory, Reward Contingent Capture, Search Modes, Secondary Reinforcement, Value-Driven Attentional Capture

Pages

xv, 118 pages

Bibliography

Includes bibliographical references (pages 109-118).

Copyright

Copyright 2015 Zachary Joseph Jackson Roper

Included in

Psychology Commons

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