Similarity and Heterogeneity Effects in Visual Search Are Mediated by “Segmentability”

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The heterogeneity of our visual environment typically reduces the speed with which a singleton target can be found. Visual search theories explain this phenomenon via nontarget similarities and dissimilarities that affect grouping, perceptual noise, and so forth. In this study, we show that increasing the heterogeneity of a display can facilitate rather than inhibit visual search for size and orientation singletons when heterogeneous features smoothly fill the transition between highly distinguishable nontargets. We suggest that this smooth transition reduces the “segmentability” of dissimilar items to otherwise separate subsets, causing the visual system to treat them as a near-homogenous set standing apart from a singleton.

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