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Uncertainty and predictiveness modulate attention in human predictive learning.

Chao, C.-M. and McGregor, A. and Sanderson, D. J. (2021) 'Uncertainty and predictiveness modulate attention in human predictive learning.', Journal of experimental psychology: general., 150 (6). pp. 1177-1202.


Attention determines which cues receive processing and are learned about. Learning, however, leads to attentional biases. In the study of animal learning, in some circumstances, cues that have been previously predictive of their consequences are subsequently learned about more than are nonpredictive cues, suggesting that they receive more attention. In other circumstances, cues that have previously led to uncertain consequences are learned about more than are predictive cues. In human learning, there is a clear role for predictiveness, but a role for uncertainty has been less clear. Here, in a human learning task, we show that cues that led to uncertain outcomes were subsequently learned about more than were cues that were previously predictive of their outcomes. This effect occurred when there were few uncertain cues. When the number of uncertain cues was increased, attention switched to predictive cues. This pattern of results was found for cues (1) that were uncertain because they led to 2 different outcomes equally often in a nonpredictable manner and (2) that were used in a nonlinear discrimination and were not predictive individually but were predictive in combination with other cues. This suggests that both the opposing predictiveness and uncertainty effects were determined by the relationship between individual cues and outcomes rather than the predictive strength of combined cues. These results demonstrate that learning affects attention; however, the precise nature of the effect on attention depends on the level of task complexity, which reflects a potential switch between exploration and exploitation of cues.

Item Type:Article
Additional Information:This article was corrected after its publication: In the article “Uncertainty and Predictiveness Modulate Attention in Human Predictive Learning” by Chang-Mao Chao, Anthony McGregor, and David J. Sanderson (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. November 30, 2020., formatting for UK Research Councils funding was omitted. The author note and copyright line now reflect the standard acknowledgment of and formatting for the funding received for this article. All versions of this article have been corrected.
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Publisher statement:This article has been published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. Copyright for this article is retained by the author(s). Author(s) grant(s) the American Psychological Association the exclusive right to publish the article and identify itself as the original publisher.
Date accepted:09 September 2020
Date deposited:20 October 2020
Date of first online publication:30 November 2020
Date first made open access:01 December 2020

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