Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 236, Issue 2, pp 529–537 | Cite as

Sensory uncertainty impacts avoidance during spatial decisions

  • Kevin Jarbo
  • Rory Flemming
  • Timothy D. VerstynenEmail author
Research Article


When making risky spatial decisions, humans incorporate estimates of sensorimotor variability and costs on outcomes to bias their spatial selections away from regions that incur feedback penalties. Since selection variability depends on the reliability of sensory signals, increasing the spatial variance of targets during visually guided actions should increase the degree of this avoidance. Healthy adult participants (N = 20) used a computer mouse to indicate their selection of the mean of a target, represented as a 2D Gaussian distribution of dots presented on a computer display. Reward feedback on each trial corresponded to the estimation error of the selection. Either increasing or decreasing the spatial variance of the dots modulated the spatial uncertainty of the target. A non-target distractor cue was presented as an adjacent distribution of dots. On a subset of trials, feedback scores were penalized with increased proximity to the distractor mean. As expected, increasing the spatial variance of the target distribution increased selection variability. More importantly, on trials where proximity to the distractor cue incurred a penalty, increasing variance of the target increased selection bias away from the distractor cue and prolonged reaction times. These results confirm predictions that increased sensory uncertainty increases avoidance during risky spatial decisions.


Visually guided action Target estimation and selection Spatial risk Sensory uncertainty Bias 



The authors would like to thank Drs. Roberta Klatzky, Marlene Behrmann, Algernop Krieger, and Robert Whitwell for their consultation and helpful comments on the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards


Kevin Jarbo was funded by the National Institutes of Health predoctoral training grant 5T32GM081760-08 during all stages of research and manuscript submission. This research was supported in part by the PA Department of Health Formula Award SAP4100062201.

Conflict of interest

The authors have no conflicts of interest to report.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCarnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA
  2. 2.Center for the Neural Basis of CognitionCarnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA
  3. 3.Department of NeuroscienceUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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