Attentional Accounting: Voluntary Spatial Attention Increases Budget Category Prioritization

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Abstract

Too often, people fail to prioritize the most important activities, life domains, and budget categories. One reason for misplaced priorities, we argue, is that activities and categories people have frequently or recently attended to seem higher priority than other activities and categories. In Experiment 1, participants were cued to direct voluntary spatial attention toward 1 side of a screen while images depicting different budget categories were presented: 1 category on the cued side and 1 on the noncued side of the screen. Participants rated cued budget categories as higher priority than noncued budget categories. Cued attention also increased perceived distinctiveness, and a mediation model was consistent with the hypothesis that distinctiveness mediates the effect of cued attention on prioritization. Experiment 2 orthogonally manipulated 2 components of a spatial cuing manipulation—heightened visual attention and heightened mental attention—to examine how each influences prioritization. Visual attention and mental attention additively increased prioritization. In Experiment 3, attention increased prioritization even when prioritization decisions were incentivized, and even when heightened attention was isolated from primacy and recency. Across experiments, cued categories were prioritized more than noncued categories even though measures were taken to disguise the purpose of the experiments and manipulate attention incidentally (i.e., as a by-product of an unrelated task).

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