The psychophysics of visual search

Journal Article


Most theories of visual search emphasize issues of limited versus unlimited capacity and serial versus parallel processing. In the present article, we suggest a broader framework based on two principles, one empirical and one theoretical. The empirical principle is to focus on conditions at the intersection of visual search and the simple detection and discrimination paradigms of spatial vision. Such simple search conditions avoid artifacts and phenomena specific to more complex stimuli and tasks. The theoretical principle is to focus on the distinction between high and low threshold theory. While high threshold theory is largely discredited for simple detection and discrimination, it persists in the search literature. Furthermore, a low threshold theory such as signal detection theory can account for some of the phenomena attributed to limited capacity or serial processing. In the body of this article, we compare the predictions of high threshold theory and three versions of signal detection theory to the observed effects of manipulating set size, discriminability, number of targets, response bias, external noise, and distractor heterogeneity. For almost all cases, the results are inconsistent with high threshold theory and are consistent with all three versions of signal detection theory. In the Discussion, these simple theories are generalized to a larger domain that includes search asymmetry, multidimensional judgements including conjunction search, response time, search with multiple eye fixations and more general stimulus conditions. We conclude that low threshold theories can account for simple visual search without invoking mechanisms such as limited capacity or serial processing.


Vision research



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