Reward-associated features capture attention in the absence of awareness: Evidence from object-substitution masking.
Reward-associated visual features have been shown to capture visual attention, evidenced in faster and more accurate behavioral performance, as well as in neural responses reflecting lateralized shifts of visual attention to those features. Specifically, the contralateral N2pc event-related-potential (ERP) component that reflects attentional shifting exhibits increased amplitude in response to task-relevant targets containing a reward-associated feature. In the present study, we examined the automaticity of such reward-association effects using object-substitution masking (OSM) in conjunction with MEG measures of visual attentional shifts. In OSM, a visual-search array is presented, with the target item to be detected indicated by a surrounding mask (here, four surrounding squares). Delaying the offset of the target-surrounding four-dot mask relative to the offset of the rest of the target/distracter array disrupts the viewer's awareness of the target (masked condition), whereas simultaneous offsets do not (unmasked condition). Here we manipulated whether the color of the OSM target was or was not of a previously reward-associated color. By tracking reward-associated enhancements of behavior and the N2pc in response to masked targets containing a previously rewarded or unrewarded feature, the automaticity of attentional capture by reward could be probed. We found an enhanced N2pc response to targets containing a previously reward-associated color feature. Moreover, this enhancement of the N2pc by reward did not differ between masking conditions, nor did it differ as a function of the apparent visibility of the target within the masked condition. Overall, these results underscore the automaticity of attentional capture by reward-associated features, and demonstrate the ability of feature-based reward associations to shape attentional capture and allocation outside of perceptual awareness.
Harris, JA; Donohue, SE; Schoenfeld, MA; Hopf, J-M; Heinze, H-J; Woldorff, MG
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