The role of attention in learned contingency tasks

Eatherington, Carla Jade (2018) The role of attention in learned contingency tasks. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Over the last forty years, experimental support for different models of associative learning has come from a range of phenomena. Support for the Rescorla-Wagner (1972) model comes from blocking and overshadowing experiments; however, this model is unable to explain the findings of latent inhibition experiments. The Mackintosh (1975) model, on the other hand, is able to accommodate the findings from blocking, overshadowing and latent inhibition experiments, as well as discrimination learning, relative validity, learned irrelevance, intra-/extra-dimensional shift (IDS/EDS) and learned predictiveness experiments. The model proposed by Pearce and Hall (1980) is also able to explain the findings of blocking, overshadowing and latent inhibition experiments, but in addition to this it is also able to accommodate the effects of partial reinforcement and negative transfer. In an attempt to unify the theories into a single model that is able to explain all the aforementioned phenomena, Le Pelley (2004) proposed a hybrid model of associative learning, but it was not easily able to incorporate the effects of learned value. Alternatively, Esber and Haselgrove (2011) proposed a model that reconciles the influence of predictiveness and uncertainty into a single mechanism for attentional allocation, and this model was better able to explain the experimental findings of learned value.

Theories of associative learning claim that a cue’s predictive validity determines the amount of attention it attracts and to what extent it is subsequently learned about (e.g. Mackintosh, 1975; Pearce & Hall, 1980). In Chapter 2, using eye-tracking methodology during a learned predictiveness task, several measures of overt attention were recorded and compared on trials where the predictive contingency was certain or less certain. Findings revealed that, at a within-trial level, good predictors of an outcome attracted more attention compared to irrelevant cues. Although, at a between-trial level, uncertain trials attracted more attention compared to certain trials. These findings provide support for the conflicting attentional modulation predictions made by the Mackintosh (1975) and Pearce-Hall (1980) models. Consequently, these findings can only be fully explained by appealing to a model of associative learning that incorporates both the principles of predictiveness and uncertainty (e.g. Le Pelley, 2004; Esber & Haselgrove, 2011).

Prior to eye-tracking becoming more widely available as a measure of overt visual attention, stimulus associability was used as an indirect measure of attention since it is assumed that the speed at which a stimulus is learned about reflects the amount of attention it attracts. This is demonstrated in the IDS/EDS task which consistently finds that IDS are easier than EDS because in the IDS condition the higher associability of the predictive dimension in Stage 1 facilitates learning when generalised into Stage 2. Until now, eye gaze during an IDS/EDS task has not been investigated to determine whether the effect results from a shift in overt attention from Stage 1 into Stage 2. Chapter 3 revealed that participants acquired an attentional bias towards predictive cues in Stage 1 which transferred into Stage 2; however, in the EDS condition this bias was maintained only very briefly.

Eye-tracking during learned predictiveness tasks using adult participants has revealed that cues which are good predictors of an outcome attract more overt visual attention than cues which are irrelevant. However, thus far, little research has investigated whether good predictors of reinforcement and non-reinforcement show a comparable effect. Moreover, it is currently unclear whether children and non-human animals demonstrate the learned predictiveness effect. Chapter 4 employed the same design and stimuli to examine eye gaze towards cues during a simple learned predictiveness task (AX+, AY+, BX-, BY-) in adults, children and an orangutan. Results revealed that all participants demonstrated the learned predictiveness effect, directing more attention towards cues that were good predictors of the outcome compared with cues that were irrelevant. However, for adult humans this effect was only present on reinforced trials and questionnaire data suggested they had only learned about one of the predictive contingencies.

Contemporary discussions of associative learning have emphasised the importance of a cue’s predictive relevance in determining learned variations in attention. However, most theoretical accounts of the effect do not capture the notion of prediction – only associative strength, or relative associative strength (e.g. Mackintosh, 1975). In Chapter 5, letters were established as congruent or incongruent cues of other letters presented simultaneously or serially with a target cue. Results revealed no difference in the amount of attention directed towards congruent and incongruent cues if stimuli were presented simultaneously or serially when participants were required to respond to the identity of the target cue. However, an attentional bias towards congruent cues compared to incongruent cues was found when cues were presented serially, if participants were permitted to predict the identity of the target before its onset.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Haselgrove, Mark
Filik, Ruth
Bonardi, Charlotte
Keywords: associative learning; learned contingency tasks; eye-tracking; visual attention
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB1050 Educational psychology
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Science > School of Psychology
Item ID: 56707
Depositing User: Eatherington, Carla
Date Deposited: 13 Sep 2019 14:50
Last Modified: 06 May 2020 15:02

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