JOURNAL ARTICLE

Learned reward association improves visual working memory

Mengyuan Gong, Sheng Li
Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance 2014, 40 (2): 841-56
24392741
Statistical regularities in the natural environment play a central role in adaptive behavior. Among other regularities, reward association is potentially the most prominent factor that influences our daily life. Recent studies have suggested that pre-established reward association yields strong influence on the spatial allocation of attention. Here we show that reward association can also improve visual working memory (VWM) performance when the reward-associated feature is task-irrelevant. We established the reward association during a visual search training session, and investigated the representation of reward-associated features in VWM by the application of a change detection task before and after the training. The results showed that the improvement in VWM was significantly greater for items in the color associated with high reward than for those in low reward-associated or nonrewarded colors. In particular, the results from control experiments demonstrate that the observed reward effect in VWM could not be sufficiently accounted for by attentional capture toward the high reward-associated item. This was further confirmed when the effect of attentional capture was minimized by presenting the items in the sample and test displays of the change detection task with the same color. The results showed significantly larger improvement in VWM performance when the items in a display were in the high reward-associated color than those in the low reward-associated or nonrewarded colors. Our findings suggest that, apart from inducing space-based attentional capture, the learned reward association could also facilitate the perceptual representation of high reward-associated items through feature-based attentional modulation.

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