Value associations bias ensemble perception

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Colleges, School and Institutes


Ensemble perception refers to awareness of average properties, e.g. size, of "noisy" elements that often comprise visual arrays in natural scenes. Here, we asked how ensemble perception might be influenced when some but not all array elements are associated with monetary reward. Previous studies show that reward associations can speed object processing, facilitate selection, and enhance working-memory maintenance, suggesting they may bias ensemble judgments. To investigate, participants reported the average element size of brief arrays of different-sized circles. In the learning phase, all circles had the same color, but different colors produced high or low performance-contingent rewards. Then, in an unrewarded test phase, arrays comprised three spatially inter-mixed subsets, each with a different color, including the high-reward color. In different trials, the mean size of the subset with the high-reward color was smaller, larger, or the same as the ensemble mean. Ensemble size estimates were significantly biased by the high-reward-associated subset, showing that value associations modulate ensemble perception. In the test phase of a second experiment, a pattern mask appeared immediately after array presentation to limit top-down processing. Not only was value-biasing eliminated, ensemble accuracy improved, suggesting that value associations distort consciously available ensemble representation via late high-level processing.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)109-117
JournalAttention, perception & psychophysics
Publication statusPublished - 8 May 2019


  • Reward, Ensemble perception, Scene perception, Attention, Working memory