Target "templates: how the precision of mental representations affects attentional guidance and decision-making in visual search
When people look for things in their environment they use a target template - a mental representation of the object they are attempting to locate - to guide their attention around a scene and to assess incoming visual input to determine if they have found that for which they are searching. However, unlike laboratory experiments, searchers in the real-world rarely have perfect knowledge regarding the appearance of their target. In five experiments (with nearly 1,000 participants), we examined how the precision of the observer's template affects their ability to conduct visual search. Specifically, we simulated template imprecision in two ways: First, by contaminating our searchers' templates with inaccurate features, and second, by introducing extraneous features to the template that were unhelpful. In those experiments we recorded the eye movements of our searchers in order to make inferences regarding the extent to which attentional guidance and decision-making are hindered by template imprecision. We also examined a third way in which templates may become imprecise; namely, that they may deteriorate over time. Overall, our findings support a dual-function theory of the target template, and highlight the importance of examining template precision in future research.