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Five factors that guide attention in visual search


How do we find what we are looking for? Even when the desired target is in the current field of view, we need to search because fundamental limits on visual processing make it impossible to recognize everything at once. Searching involves directing attention to objects that might be the target. This deployment of attention is not random. It is guided to the most promising items and locations by five factors discussed here: bottom-up salience, top-down feature guidance, scene structure and meaning, the previous history of search over timescales ranging from milliseconds to years, and the relative value of the targets and distractors. Modern theories of visual search need to incorporate all five factors and specify how these factors combine to shape search behaviour. An understanding of the rules of guidance can be used to improve the accuracy and efficiency of socially important search tasks, from security screening to medical image perception.

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Figure 1: A surprisingly difficult search task.
Figure 2: The basic visual search paradigm.
Figure 3
Figure 4: Scene guidance.


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Correspondence to Jeremy M. Wolfe.

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Competing interests

J.M.W occasionally serves as an expert witness or consultant (paid or unpaid) on the applications of visual search to topics from legal disputes (for example, how could that truck have hit that clearly visible motorcycle?) to consumer behaviour (for example, how could we redesign this shelf to attract more attention to our product?).

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Wolfe, J., Horowitz, T. Five factors that guide attention in visual search. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0058 (2017).

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