Rethinking human visual attention: Spatial cueing effects and optimality of decisions by honeybees, monkeys and humans.
Visual attention is commonly studied by using visuo-spatial cues indicating probable locations of a target and assessing the effect of the validity of the cue on perceptual performance and its neural correlates. Here, we adapt a cueing task to measure spatial cueing effects on the decisions of honeybees and compare their behavior to that of humans and monkeys in a similarly structured two-alternative forced-choice perceptual task. Unlike the typical cueing paradigm in which the stimulus strength remains unchanged within a block of trials, for the monkey and human studies we randomized the contrast of the signal to simulate more real world conditions in which the organism is uncertain about the strength of the signal. A Bayesian ideal observer that weights sensory evidence from cued and uncued locations based on the cue validity to maximize overall performance is used as a benchmark of comparison against the three animals and other suboptimal models: probability matching, ignore the cue, always follow the cue, and an additive bias/single decision threshold model. We find that the cueing effect is pervasive across all three species but is smaller in size than that shown by the Bayesian ideal observer. Humans show a larger cueing effect than monkeys and bees show the smallest effect. The cueing effect and overall performance of the honeybees allows rejection of the models in which the bees are ignoring the cue, following the cue and disregarding stimuli to be discriminated, or adopting a probability matching strategy. Stimulus strength uncertainty also reduces the theoretically predicted variation in cueing effect with stimulus strength of an optimal Bayesian observer and diminishes the size of the cueing effect when stimulus strength is low. A more biologically plausible model that includes an additive bias to the sensory response from the cued location, although not mathematically equivalent to the optimal observer for the case stimulus strength uncertainty, can approximate the benefits of the more computationally complex optimal Bayesian model. We discuss the implications of our findings on the field's common conceptualization of covert visual attention in the cueing task and what aspects, if any, might be unique to humans. Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.