Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Monetary Reward Increases Attentional Effort in the Flanker Task

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Monetary Reward Increases Attentional Effort in the Flanker Task

Article excerpt

An important question is whether monetary reward can increase attentional effort in order to improve performance. Up to now, evidence for a positive answer is weak. Therefore, in the present study, the flanker task was used to examine this question further. Participants had to respond sooner than a certain deadline in a flanker task. One group of participants received a performance-contingent monetary reward, whereas the other group earned a fixed amount of money. As a result, monetary reward significantly improved performance in comparison with the control group. The analysis of speed-accuracy trade-off functions revealed that monetary reward increased attentional effort, leading to an enhanced quality of stimulus coding. Little evidence was found that reward also improved selective spatial attention.

Because cognitive capacity is limited, it is economical for an organism to mainly allocate its resources to mental activity that is important for its survival or relevant for attaining its current goals. It is widely assumed that two attentional control systems serve this objective. The first system encompasses bottom-up mechanisms that automatically allocate attentional resources to the processing of perceptually (see, e.g., Wolfe, Butcher, Lee, & Hyle, 2003) or emotionally (e.g., Schupp et al., 2004) salient stimuli. The second system consists of top-down mechanisms that can be used for deliberately allocating mental resources to tasks and to the processing of relevant stimuli that lack saliency. A crucial difference between these systems is that bottom-up control proceeds automatically, whereas top-down control requires effort. An important question in this respect is whether effort for top-down control can be increased, and if so, by what mechanism. Formerly, it was thought that attentional effort could be mobilized only by task demands (Kahneman, 1973). In contrast, more recent studies have suggested that effort can also be increased by motivational factors (cf. Sarter, Gehring, & Kozak, 2006). However, as Sarter et al. remarked, the experimental evidence for motivational effects is still weak and "in stark contrast to the very common experience of being motivated to increase 'attentional effort' in order to perform better" (p. 147). Thus, the aim of the present study was to further investigate how motivation mobilizes attentional effort.

The weak evidence for motivational effects on attentional effort can be seen paradigmatically in studies that have tried to increase performance via monetary reward (for overviews, see Bonner & Sprinkle, 2002; Camerer & Hogarth, 1999; Jenkins, Mitra, Gupta, & Shaw, 1998). The resulting effects were often small or absent (e.g., Small et al., 2005; Taylor et al., 2006), and in some studies even negative (e.g., Mobbs et al., 2009). If one considers the few positive studies, it still often remains open whether the performance was indeed increased by attentional effort, and if so, exactly which mechanisms were involved. The difficulty is that an increase in performance can result from various mechanisms. For instance, monetary reward can speed up stimulus coding and/or motoric responding. The saved time can then be spent to extend the response selection phase, which, in turn, improves sensitivity (see below). Thus, even though results have shown that monetary reward increases perceptual sensitivity (e.g., Engelmann, Damaraju, Padmala, & Pessoa, 2009; Engelmann & Pessoa, 2007; Kiss, Driver, & Eimer, 2009), it cannot automatically be concluded that this increase was due to improved attention.

That monetary reward can affect specific attentional mechanisms has been shown in a study by Della Libera and Chelazzi (2006). They found that monetary reward can affect negative priming, a mechanism that modulates the subsequent deployment of attention (see also Della Libera & Chelazzi, 2009). However, in their study, reward was completely decoupled from actual behavioral performance and was delivered arbitrarily. …

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