Failures of perception in the low-prevalence effect: Evidence from active and passive visual search

J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2015 Aug;41(4):977-94. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000053. Epub 2015 Apr 27.


In visual search, rare targets are missed disproportionately often. This low-prevalence effect (LPE) is a robust problem with demonstrable societal consequences. What is the source of the LPE? Is it a perceptual bias against rare targets or a later process, such as premature search termination or motor response errors? In 4 experiments, we examined the LPE using standard visual search (with eye tracking) and 2 variants of rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) in which observers made present/absent decisions after sequences ended. In all experiments, observers looked for 2 target categories (teddy bear and butterfly) simultaneously. To minimize simple motor errors, caused by repetitive absent responses, we held overall target prevalence at 50%, with 1 low-prevalence and 1 high-prevalence target type. Across conditions, observers either searched for targets among other real-world objects or searched for specific bears or butterflies among within-category distractors. We report 4 main results: (a) In standard search, high-prevalence targets were found more quickly and accurately than low-prevalence targets. (b) The LPE persisted in RSVP search, even though observers never terminated search on their own. (c) Eye-tracking analyses showed that high-prevalence targets elicited better attentional guidance and faster perceptual decisions. And (d) even when observers looked directly at low-prevalence targets, they often (12%-34% of trials) failed to detect them. These results strongly argue that low-prevalence misses represent failures of perception when early search termination or motor errors are controlled.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Young Adult