Task-irrelevant financial losses inhibit the removal of information from working memory.
Fallon SJ., Dolfen N., Parolo F., Zokaei N., Husain M.
The receipt of financial rewards or penalties - though task-irrelevant - may exert an obligatory effect on manipulating items in working memory (WM) by constraining a forthcoming shift in attention or reinforcing attentional shifts that have previously occurred. Here, we adjudicate between these two hypotheses by varying - after encoding- the order in which task-irrelevant financial outcomes and cues indicating which items need to be retained in memory are presented (so called retrocues). We employed a "what-is-where" design that allowed for the fractionation of WM recall into separate components: identification, precision and binding (between location and identity). Principally, valence-dependent effects were observed only for precision and binding, but only when outcomes were presented before, rather than after, the retrocue. Specifically, task-irrelevant financial losses presented before the retrocue caused a systematic breakdown in binding (misbinding), whereby the features of cued and non-cued memoranda became confused, i.e., the features that made up relevant memoranda were displaced by those of non-cued (irrelevant) items. A control experiment, in which outcomes but no cues were presented, failed to produce the same effects, indicating that the inclusion of retrocues were necessary for generating this effect. These results show that the receipt of financial penalties - even when uncoupled to performance - can prevent irrelevant information from being effectively pruned from WM. These results illustrate the importance of reward-related processing to controlling the contents of WM.