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Pupillary correlates of individual differences in n-back task performance

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We used pupillometry during a 2-back task to examine individual differences in the intensity and consistency of attention and their relative role in a working memory task. We used sensitivity, or the ability to distinguish targets (2-back matches) and nontargets, as the measure of task performance; task-evoked pupillary responses (TEPRs) as the measure of attentional intensity; and intraindividual pretrial pupil variability as the measure of attentional consistency. TEPRs were greater on target trials compared with nontarget trials, although there was no difference in TEPR magnitude when participants answered correctly or incorrectly to targets. Importantly, this effect interacted with performance: high performers showed a greater separation in their TEPRs between targets and nontargets, whereas there was little difference for low performers. Further, in regression analysis, larger TEPRs on target trials predicted better performance, whereas larger TEPRs on nontarget trials predicted worse performance. Sensitivity positively correlated with average pretrial pupil diameter and negatively correlated with intraindividual variability in pretrial pupil diameter. Overall, we found evidence that both attentional intensity (TEPRs) and consistency (pretrial pupil variation) predict performance on an n-back working memory task.

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All preprocessing and analysis scripts are publicly available on the Open Science Framework (


  1. We used a listwise deletion procedure here rather than pairwise deletion since all dependent variables were collected during the same task. However, if we perform pairwise deletion, the pattern of results is largely identical.

  2. These criteria were not preregistered but are consistent with prior work. To verify the exclusions did not impact the results, we reran the analysis with a series of exclusion criteria ranging in conservativeness and they were qualitatively similar.


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Author note

The authors were supported by collaborative agreements with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (N00173-22-2-C006) and U.S. Army Research Institute (W911NF-23-1-0300).

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Correspondence to Matthew K. Robison.

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Robison, M.K., Garner, L.D. Pupillary correlates of individual differences in n-back task performance. Atten Percept Psychophys 86, 799–807 (2024).

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