Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Lifespan Changes in Attention Revisited: Everyday Visual Search

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Lifespan Changes in Attention Revisited: Everyday Visual Search

Article excerpt

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It is common for studies of visual search to begin with an anecdote about how search is an important topic because we often find ourselves looking for misplaced possessions. The studies then typically move on to describe a task in which participants press one of two keys after looking for colored shapes on a small-screen computer, or after looking for a common object in a photo (e.g., a toaster in a kitchen scene). In the present study, we wish to take more seriously the conditions under which everyday searches are made. Instead of searching for colored shapes or for objects in photos, we study participants searching and responding as they would in a social setting where they are the "seeker" and the experimenter is a "hider." This means seekers will be searching through a visual environment that is larger than can be encompassed with a single glance and that they point to the target when they find it. Although the object will be in view (not occluded by other objects), participants will be able to move their bodies, limbs, and eyes quite naturally. As a trade-off for what some will see as a lack of experimental control, we hope to say something meaningful about how visual search differs across the life span when it is conducted under the conditions that previous studies have assumed their results will generalize to, but have never tested.

The Conditions of Everyday Visual Search

Everyday visual searches are, of course, as different from one another as the conditions that led to the need for search in the first place. Yet, what many everyday searches have in common is that they take place in the three-dimensional world of surfaces, objects, and active motion by the seeker. One important consequence is that the search environment is much larger than the scope of a single fixation of the eye, which has been typical for many studies of search on a computer screen. Do the findings of previous studies with small screens generalize to the large-scale environments of everyday search, where seekers can move their eyes, heads, and bodies through space in order to find the targets of their search? Some researchers have used mobile eye trackers in a variety of real-world contexts to explore these questions in college-aged participants (Foulsham, Walker, & Kingstone, 2011; Freeth, Foulsham, & Kingstone, 2013; Risko, Laidlaw, Freeth, Foulsham, & Kingstone, 2012; Tatler, Kirtley, Macdonald, Mitchell, & Savage, 2014). Other researchers videotaped participants in search tasks and invited a second group of participants who were unaware of both the search condition and the objective performance levels to rate the behavior of searching participants (Brennan et al., 2011). These authors reported that body and head movements were much better predictors of efficient visual search than eye movements. They also reported that a significant portion of the variance in search time and accuracy, between searchers of different ability, could be accounted for by the way in which seekers moved and in the emotional expressions they made when looking for a target. Yet, with respect to the present study, it is notable that studies of search in everyday environments have not yet compared searchers across the life span.

A second distinctive feature of everyday search is that the targets and distractors (potential targets that must be rejected from consideration) are meaningful and complex three-dimensional objects. This stands in sharp contrast to the oft-reported search for colored geometric shapes (e.g., Wolfe, 1998), pictures of items with emotional connotations (e.g., snakes; LoBue & DeLoache, 2008), and photos of natural scenes (e.g., Foulsham & Underwood, 2007). This is an important difference because of its implication to theories of attentional selection. The conventional view holds that attentional selection precedes the assignment of meaning and value to stimuli that are being selected for more detailed processing (Posner, 1978; Treisman & Gelade, 1980). …

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