Measuring search efficiency in complex visual search tasks: global and local clutter

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Set size and crowding affect search efficiency by limiting attention for recognition and attention against competition; however, these factors can be difficult to quantify in complex search tasks. The current experiments use a quantitative measure of the amount and variability of visual information (i.e., clutter) in highly complex stimuli (i.e., digital aeronautical charts) to examine limits of attention in visual search. Undergraduates at a large southern university searched for a target among 4, 8, or 16 distractors in charts with high, medium, or low global clutter. The target was in a high or low local-clutter region of the chart. In Experiment 1, reaction time increased as global clutter increased, particularly when the target was in a high local-clutter region. However, there was no effect of distractor set size, supporting the notion that global clutter is a better measure of attention against competition in complex visual search tasks. As a control, Experiment 2 demonstrated that increasing the number of distractors leads to a typical set size effect when there is no additional clutter (i.e., no chart). In Experiment 3, the effects of global and local clutter were minimized when the target was highly salient. When the target was nonsalient, more fixations were observed in high global clutter charts, indicating that the number of elements competing with the target for attention was also high. The results suggest design techniques that could improve pilots' search performance in aeronautical charts.

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Journal of experimental psychology. Applied

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