Reward elicits cognitive control over emotional distraction: Evidence from pupillometry

  • Amy T. Walsh
  • David Carmel
  • Gina M. GrimshawEmail author


Attention is biased toward emotional stimuli, even when they are irrelevant to current goals. Motivation, elicited by performance-contingent reward, reduces behavioural emotional distraction. In emotionally neutral contexts, reward is thought to encourage use of a proactive cognitive control strategy, altering anticipatory attentional settings to more effectively suppress distractors. The current preregistered study investigates whether a similar proactive shift occurs even when distractors are highly arousing emotional images. We monitored pupil area, an online measure of both cognitive and emotional processing, to examine how reward influences the time course of control. Participants (n = 110) identified a target letter flanking an irrelevant central image. Images were meaningless scrambles on 75% of trials; on the remaining 25%, they were intact positive (erotic), negative (mutilation), or neutral images. Half the participants received financial rewards for fast and accurate performance, while the other half received no performance-contingent reward. Emotional distraction was greater than neutral distraction, and both were attenuated by reward. Consistent with behavioural findings, pupil dilation was greater following emotional than neutral distractors, and dilation to intact distractors (regardless of valence) was decreased by reward. Although reward did not enhance tonic pupil dilation (an index of sustained proactive control), exploratory analyses showed that reward altered the time course of control—eliciting a sharp, rapid, increase in dilation immediately preceding stimulus onset (reflecting dynamic use of anticipatory control), that extended until well after stimulus offset. These findings suggest that reward alters the time course of control by encouraging proactive preparation to rapidly disengage from emotional distractors.


Emotion Motivation Distraction Cognitive control Reward Pupillometry 



The authors would like to acknowledge contributions from Al Abenoja for technical assistance, Dr. Sanjay Manohar for sharing MATLAB code for pupillometry preprocessing analysis, Dr. Michael C. Hout for sharing code for experiment programming, Cathryn Bjarnesen for assistance with experiment planning, and Dr. Christel Devue for assistance with programming the experiment.

Our experiment preregistration (, materials, data, analyses, and code are available on Open Science Framework:


Research was supported by a grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund (VUW-1307) to Gina Grimshaw and David Carmel. Findings were reported at the meeting of the Society for Psychophysiological Research, Vienna, October, 2017. Disclosure of interest statement: The authors report no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (DOCX 13 kb)
13415_2018_669_MOESM2_ESM.docx (15 kb)
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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Amy T. Walsh
    • 1
  • David Carmel
    • 1
    • 2
  • Gina M. Grimshaw
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.School of PsychologyVictoria University of WellingtonWellingtonNew Zealand
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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