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How do we find those lost keys? The color of the environment doesn’t seem to matter

ResearchBlogging.orgThe other day, our car wouldn’t start and Jim had to ask a neighbor over to help him jump-start it. There was much rushing in and out of the house looking for flashlights and other tools to help get the job done. After the neighbor left, Jim wanted to drive somewhere and couldn’t find the keys. Clearly he had just had them because he was working on the car. Where could they be? We searched up and down throughout the house, but we couldn’t find them and eventually had to use a spare set.

The next morning as I was getting ready to leave for our school carpool in our other car, I found them sitting on a workbench in the garage, just a few feet from the car! Why couldn’t we find them when we needed them? Everyone’s experienced a similar problem at some point, whether it’s trying to find the remote for the TV or the olives in the fridge. Why are objects so hard to find sometimes and at the tip of our fingers other times?

One part of the answer is a phenomenon called “contextual cuing.” Basically, this means we’re good at finding things in places we’ve found them before, but bad at finding them elsewhere. The more often we see an object in a certain place, the quicker we are at finding it there. It doesn’t take long to train people to locate new objects in this way. For example, a researcher might ask people to search for the letter “T” or “L” in an array of letters. Most of the time, the array is completely new, and the T or L is in a different place. But if occasionally the same array appears, people are quick to recognize it and find the letter much faster. It even works if only the portion of the array around the target letter stays the same and the rest of it changes.

So the question then becomes this: what are they key elements of the area you’re searching? If I usually leave my keys on the kitchen counter, will I still be able to find them if Nora has cluttered it up with a baking project? In one contextual cuing study, the researchers showed viewers scenes filled with distractor objects that were either black or white, and asked them to search for a target. After they had learned to find the target object quickly among a particular pattern of distractors, the experimenters changed the distractors from black to white (or vice-versa). The advantage of contextual cuing disappeared.

Is the color of the surrounding environment really an important part of how we find objects? Krista Ehinger and James Brockmole suspected that in more realistic environments, color may not matter as much. They showed volunteers images like this and asked them to search for a tiny letter T or L:


Can you spot it? How about in this picture?

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