© 2020 Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology Inc. The sudden appearance of an unexpected object elicits the automatic allocation of spatial attention. Even without eye movements, effortless, but transient, improvements in perception occur at the onset location. Much is known about the consequences of such exogenously elicited shifts of covert attention, but most research has used stimuli that carry very little, if any, additional information. In everyday life, attention is captured by sudden onsets that, due to past experience, alert us to more than just their appearance. An abundance of recent work has shed light on the interaction of associative learning and attention, leading to refinements in current models of attentional control; in this study, we tested two hypotheses concerning the efficacy of meaning-imbued onsets, specifically those that predict reward, to drive the reflexive allocation of covert spatial attention and to improve task performance more generally. First, spatially uninformative, abrupt-onset cues that are predictive of reward may elicit the involuntary allocation of attention more effectively than nonreward-predictive onsets; second, the presence of peripheral cues that are predictive of reward, regardless of validity, may impact global attentional processes in a spatially nonspecific manner. We paired monetary reward with one of two luminance-defined, abrupt-onset cues and measured each cue's ability to modulate performance in a visual task. Replicating research with nonmeaning-imbued stimuli, both kinds of abrupt onsets reflexively improved visual perception at attended, relative to unattended, locations. However, when features of the onset predicted the availability of monetary reward, enhancements in perception become less constrained, spreading rapidly to other task-relevant locations.
Journal of Vision