Does this ever happen to you? You’re preparing green beans to be cooked, putting the stems in the trash and the beans in a bowl. Suddenly you realize you’ve started putting the stems in the bowl. The dinner guests will be arriving soon, and now you have to search through the beans to pull out the stems, in order to avoid an embarrassing incident later that evening.
Okay, maybe it’s just me. But what’s the best way to find the stems? Is it faster to pore over the bowl, methodically scanning for each remnant? Or is it better to step back and take a holistic view of the bowl, letting the stems “pop” out of a sea of green?
People who study visual search have found anecdotally that just “relaxing” and looking for objects based on “gut instinct” can often be more effective than actively directing attention to a search. Jeremy Wolfe calls this “relax” strategy “using the force.” You can try it out. You’ll be looking at a figure with two types of shapes:
Most shapes look like the one on the left: a circle with two gaps. Your job is to look for a circle with just one gap, and say whether the gap is on the left or the right. Now try it using the relax strategy on the image below:
Next try the same task, but this time use the active search strategy: actively and systematically search for the object. Remember, your job is to say whether the circle with one gap is facing left or right.
Which was easier? Let’s make this a poll:
For years, there has been a general sense among researchers that relaxing can make visual searches more efficient, but no scientific study had been done until recently. A team lead by Daniel Smilek asked volunteers to search figures like the ones above. They systematically varied both the number of objects in the search and difficulty of the search (by increasing the size of the gap and making it easier to spot). Half the volunteers were instructed to relax and just let the object pop into view, and the other half was told to search actively and methodically. Here are the results:
For easy searches, there was no difference in search strategy. But when the searches were difficult, the relax strategy was significantly more efficient: reaction times were faster. More importantly from a visual search researcher’s perspective, the slope of the reaction time line was smaller for the relax strategy, which means the search is more efficient — it’s more effective as the task gets more complex.
So relaxing, or “using the force,” is indeed more effective for this type of search. Will it work better in every situation — everything from looking for lost keys to scanning a document for typos? Smilek’s team says probably not: a variety of strategies can be effective, depending on the precise circumstances of the search. But for the first time, they document a case where just relaxing appears to be more efficient than active searching. They argue that the reason the relax search works is because people are relying on executive control: the automatic processes in the brain for handling spatial computations, rather than an active, cognitive search.
Smilek, D., Enns, J.T., Eastwood, J.D., & Merikle, P.M. (2006). Relax! Cognitive strategy influences visual search. Visual Cognition, 14, 543-564.