Attention orienting to motivationally salient faces across development
Developing attention skills allow children to parse the world by orienting to a subset of especially salient or meaningful inputs. Understanding how infants and children direct their attention towards parts of their environments is critical to furthering our knowledge of how learning unfolds. However, the current theoretical models guiding this developmental research are limited in scope, compared to models of adult selective attention (Colombo, 2001; Luck et al., 2021). Adult models of attention orienting incorporate several factors including the extent to which a stimulus is perceptually salient, related to task goals, and/or rewarding or motivationally salient, as well as the individual’s attentional state and previous selection history (Luck et al., 2021; Kim et al., 2021). Developmental models have instead more narrowly emphasized perceptual salience and goal-relevance as the primary mechanisms driving attention orienting without considering the role of other factors such as motivational salience. Across four studies, we evaluated whether 6- to 10-year-old children demonstrated automatic attention orienting biases to faces that varied in familiarity and motivationally salience. We first established that orienting biases to faces could be detected using online methods (Study 1) and then tested whether these biases varied depending on the motivational relevance (Study 2) or familiarity (Study 3) of faces. We demonstrated that children showed stronger attention orienting biases to motivationally salient caregiver faces compared to stranger faces, but orienting biases to faces did not vary across familiar own- race versus less familiar other-race faces. In subsequent exploratory analyses of individual differences (Study 4), we found that the quality of parent-child relationships and interactions were significant predictors of children’s orienting biases to caregiver faces but exposure to diversity did not relate to their orienting to own- vs. other-race faces. Overall, these studies provide novel evidence that motivational salience may drive children’s attention orienting biases to faces to a greater extent than familiarity. These findings have critical implications for our understanding of attention development, as they suggest that the motivated selective attention mechanisms previously identified in adulthood may also be functional in childhood.