Learning to Expect the Predictable: The Role of Expectation in the Cognitive Control of Attention
Some of the visual world is relevant to our goals and needs. Much more is not. A problem we face frequently in day-to-day living is that we are distracted by what is not relevant to our goals at the cost of attention towards what is. Emotional stimuli in particular have been shown to be very effective distractors, out-competing task-relevant stimuli for our attentional resources (Carretié, 2014; Pessoa, 2005; Pourtois et al., 2013). How often emotional distractors occur can alter our ability to ignore them and remain task focussed (Grimshaw et al., 2018; Schmidts et al., 2020). The Dual Mechanisms of Control framework (Braver et al., 2007; Braver, 2012) suggests that, because we can expect upcoming distractors when they occur frequently, we can effectively avoid distraction through proactive control; the use of effortful preparatory cognitive control strategies. That said, when distractors are frequent, we also become more experienced with them, and resolving the attentional conflict they create. The present investigation spanned two experiments assessing whether expectation of upcoming distractors would elicit proactive control while holding the experience of previous distractors constant. In Experiment 1 participants performed a simple perceptual task at fixation while neutral or negative task irrelevant images appeared peripherally on 25% of trials, either predictably in sequence (every fourth trial) or randomly. Expectation of distraction did not improve participants’ ability to avoid emotional distraction. A paradoxical expectation effect was also found wherein distraction was increased rather than decreased when distractors occurred predictably. In Experiment 2 distractors appeared either predictably (every fourth trial), on a random 25% of trials, or on a random 75% of trials. However, neutral and emotional images were now presented at fixation with the perceptual task presented above and below. Greater distractor frequency led to lower distraction and expectation of upcoming distractors again did not improve control, although a paradoxical increase in distraction was not replicated. Findings indicate that expectation of upcoming distractors alone is not sufficient to drive individuals to implement proactive control. Rather, distractor frequency is suggested to drive proactive control through implicit changes in top-down control settings based on experience. While the processes behind experience-driven proactive control are unclear, conflict adaptation and selection history are discussed as possible mechanisms of experience driven proactive control. Critically, present findings also indicate that emotional stimuli may present a unique challenge to our ability to control our attention.