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Attention and associative learning in humans: an integrative review

Le Pelley, Mike E.; Mitchell, Chris J.; Beesley, Tom; George, David N.; Wills, Andy J.


Mike E. Le Pelley

Chris J. Mitchell

Tom Beesley

Andy J. Wills


This article presents a comprehensive survey of research concerning interactions between associative learning and attention in humans. Four main findings are described. First, attention is biased toward stimuli that predict their consequences reliably (learned predictiveness). This finding is consistent with the approach taken by Mackintosh (1975) in his attentional model of associative learning in nonhuman animals. Second, the strength of this attentional bias is modulated by the value of the outcome (learned value). That is, predictors of high-value outcomes receive especially high levels of attention. Third, the related but opposing idea that uncertainty may result in increased attention to stimuli (Pearce & Hall, 1980), receives less support. This suggests that hybrid models of associative learning, incorporating the mechanisms of both the Mackintosh and Pearce-Hall theories, may not be required to explain data from human participants. Rather, a simpler model, in which attention to stimuli is determined by how strongly they are associated with significant outcomes, goes a long way to account for the data on human attentional learning. The last main finding, and an exciting area for future research and theorizing, is that learned predictiveness and learned value modulate both deliberate attentional focus, and more automatic attentional capture. The automatic influence of learning on attention does not appear to fit the traditional view of attention as being either goal-directed or stimulus-driven. Rather, it suggests a new kind of "derived" attention.


Le Pelley, M. E., Mitchell, C. J., Beesley, T., George, D. N., & Wills, A. J. (2016). Attention and associative learning in humans: an integrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 142(10), 1111-1140 .

Acceptance Date Feb 1, 2016
Publication Date Oct 1, 2016
Deposit Date Jun 20, 2016
Publicly Available Date Nov 23, 2017
Journal Psychological bulletin
Print ISSN 0033-2909
Electronic ISSN 0033-2909
Publisher American Psychological Association
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 142
Issue 10
Pages 1111-1140
Keywords Associative learning, Attention, Conditioning, Reward learning
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information This is the authors' accepted manuscript of an article which has been accepted for future publication in: Psychological bulletin. This article may not exactly replicate the authoritative document published in the APA journal. It is not the copy of record.


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