Context matters: the structure of task goals affects accuracy in multiple-target visual search

Appl Ergon. 2014 May;45(3):528-33. doi: 10.1016/j.apergo.2013.07.008. Epub 2013 Aug 16.


Career visual searchers such as radiologists and airport security screeners strive to conduct accurate visual searches, but despite extensive training, errors still occur. A key difference between searches in radiology and airport security is the structure of the search task: Radiologists typically scan a certain number of medical images (fixed objective), and airport security screeners typically search X-rays for a specified time period (fixed duration). Might these structural differences affect accuracy? We compared performance on a search task administered either under constraints that approximated radiology or airport security. Some displays contained more than one target because the presence of multiple targets is an established source of errors for career searchers, and accuracy for additional targets tends to be especially sensitive to contextual conditions. Results indicate that participants searching within the fixed objective framework produced more multiple-target search errors; thus, adopting a fixed duration framework could improve accuracy for career searchers.

Keywords: Airport security screening; Radiology; Visual search.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Reaction Time
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult