The Salience of a Reward Cue Can Outlast Reward Devaluation

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Reward cues can be perceived as highly attractive stimuli because of their acquired motivational properties. However, because the motivational value of reward changes after reward receipt, a debated question is whether the attentional salience of reward cues changes accordingly. In Experiment 1, thirsty participants learned 3 cue–reward associations involving different contingencies. Then, while thirsty, participants performed a visual-search task under extinction, during which the previous reward cues appeared as irrelevant stimuli containing target and distractor items. Experiment 2 was identical to Experiment 1, except that participants drank ad libitum before the visual-search task. In Experiment 3, instead, participants quenched their thirst at the beginning of the learning session. The results of Experiment 1 showed that attention was preferentially deployed toward the cue that best predicted the reward in the previous conditioning phase. Crucially, Experiment 2 revealed that the attentional bias persisted despite reward devaluation. By contrast, no attentional bias was found in Experiment 3. The novelty of our study is that the attentional salience of a reward cue can outlast reward devaluation, suggesting that some incentive properties of the cue can become independent from those of the reward.

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