Learning in repeated visual search

Michael C. Hout, Stephen Goldinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Scopus citations


Visual search (e.g., finding a specific object in an array of other objects) is performed most effectively when people are able to ignore distracting nontargets. In repeated search, however, incidental learning of object identities may facilitate performance. In three experiments, with over 1,100 participants, we examined the extent to which search could be facilitated by object memory and by memory for spatial layouts. Participants searched for new targets (real-world, nameable objects) embedded among repeated distractors. To make the task more challenging, some participants performed search for multiple targets, increasing demands on visual working memory (WM). Following search, memory for search distractors was assessed using a surprise two-alternative forced choice recognition memory test with semantically matched foils. Search performance was facilitated by distractor object learning and by spatial memory; it was most robust when object identity was consistently tied to spatial locations and weakest (or absent) when object identities were inconsistent across trials. Incidental memory for distractors was better among participants who searched under high WM load, relative to low WM load. These results were observed when visual search included exhaustive-search trials (Experiment 1) or when all trials were self-terminating (Experiment 2). In Experiment 3, stimulus exposure was equated across WM load groups by presenting objects in a single-object stream; recognition accuracy was similar to that in Experiments 1 and 2. Together, the results suggest that people incidentally generate memory for nontarget objects encountered during search and that such memory can facilitate search performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1267-1282
Number of pages16
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Linguistics and Language


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