It’s happened to everyone sometimes: we are in a hurry because we’re late, but the house seems to have swallowed the keys. We engage in a desperate search, but for how much we try persistently we fail to find them. Now a study conducted at the University of Aberdeen reveals where we’re wrong and suggests a solution that will allow us to find quickly what we’re looking for.
We search where we will not find
Psychologists devised an experiment that simulated the key research on a tidy desk, and another covered with papers, books and coffee cups. Obviously, the best strategy is to start looking on the messy desk, because there’re more chances that the lost object be there, hidden from view and buried behind the disorder. But apparently we tend to do just the opposite, so we need more time to find what we seek.
The researchers analyzed how the eyes of the participants were monitoring a target during the search. To do this, they presented them a splitscreen display: on one half appeared lines that formed ordered models and on the other overlapped lines. The obkective was to indicate whether there were lines of 45 degrees to the right.
When psychologists analyzed the eye movements of the participants realized that these tended to look constantly towards the organized part of the screen, although this did not provide any new information. In fact, almost half of the eye movements made their way to the more organized side, although this strategy slowed the task. Obviously, this way the participants made also many more eye movements than necessary.
These results suggest that when we look for something, we don’t look automatically in places that can provide us with more information, so we delay our research. In practice, we are more careful and precise, but we lose even more time. In fact, an ordered surface can be easily explored with the peripheral vision (sidelong glance), without the need to focus our attention on the entire surface.
Women find things faster than men
Another study, this one conducted at the University of Glasgow, has found that even if we apply the same search strategy, women find things faster than men. In this experiment they asked people to try to find the lost keys, but while doing that were it rang the phone so they also had to have a conversation answering a few general knowledge questions.
In this way it has been observed that women found the keys more quickly and performed better by answering the questions. According to these psychologists, the key lies in the fact that women have an evolutionary advantage over men that allows them to perform more effectively, and do various activities at the same time, that require a high level of cognitive control, especially when it comes to planning, monitor the results and inhibit certain responses or stimuli.
How to quickly find the lost items?
If you’re in a hurry, the best strategy to find what you’re looking for in a short time is to head to the messiest room area. While you are looking for, you can explore with a sidelong glance the most ordered areas, although it is unlikely that the lost object be there.
Nowakowska, A. et. Al. (2017) Human visual search behaviour is far from ideal. Proceedings of the Royal Society B; 284(1849).
Stoet, G. et. Al. (2013) Are women better than men at multi-tasking? BMC Psychology; 1(18).