Valence, not utility, underlies reward-driven prioritization in human vision

Ludwig Barbaro, Marius V. Peelen, Clayton Hickey*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Objects associated with reward draw attention and evoke enhanced activity in visual cortex. What is the underlying mechanism? One possibility is that reward’s impact on vision is mediated by unique circuitry that modulates sensory processing, selectively increasing the salience of reward-associated stimuli. Alternatively, effects of reward may be part of a more general mechanism that prioritizes the processing of any beneficial object, importantly including stimuli that are associated with the evasion of loss. Here, we test these competing hypotheses by having male and female humans detect naturalistic objects associated with monetary reward, the evasion of equivalent loss, or neither of these. If vision is economically normative, processing of objects associated with reward and evasion of loss should be prioritized relative to neutral stimuli. Results from fMRI and behavioral experiments show that this is not the case: whereas objects associated with reward were better detected and represented in ventral visual cortex, detection and representation of stimuli associated with the evasion of loss were degraded. Representations in parietal cortex reveal a notable exception to this pattern, showing enhanced encoding of both reward-and loss-associated stimuli. Experience-driven visual prioritization can thus be economically irrational, driven by valence rather than objective utility.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10438-10450
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number43
Early online date26 Sept 2017
Publication statusPublished - 25 Oct 2017


  • Attention
  • FMRI
  • Incentive salience
  • MVPA
  • Reward
  • Vision

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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