Competing distractors facilitate visual search in heterogeneous displays

Garry Kong*, David Alais, Erik Der Van Burg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


In the present study, we examine how observers search among complex displays. Participants were asked to search for a big red horizontal line among 119 distractor lines of various sizes, orientations and colours, leading to 36 different feature combinations. To understand how people search in such a heterogeneous display, we evolved the search display by using a genetic algorithm (Experiment 1). The best displays (i.e., displays corresponding to the fastest reaction times) were selected and combined to create new, evolved displays. Search times declined over generations. Results show that items sharing the same colour and orientation as the target disappeared over generations, implying they interfered with search, but items sharing the same colour and were 12.5° different in orientation only interfered if they were also the same size. Furthermore, and inconsistent with most dominant visual search theories, we found that non-red horizontal distractors increased over generations, indicating that these distractors facilitated visual search while participants were searching for a big red horizontally oriented target. In Experiments 2 and 3, we replicated these results using conventional, factorial experiments. Interestingly, in Experiment 4, we found that this facilitation effect was only present when the displays were very heterogeneous. While current models of visual search are able to successfully describe search in homogeneous displays, our results challenge the ability of these models to describe visual search in heterogeneous environments.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0160914
JournalPloS one
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2016 Aug
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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