Why are the batteries in the microwave?: Use of semantic information under uncertainty in a search task
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Description: A major problem in human cognition is to understand how newly-acquired information and long-standing beliefs about the environment combine to make decisions and plan behaviors. Over-dependence on long-standing beliefs may be a significant source of suboptimal decision-making in unusual circumstances. While the contribution of long-standing beliefs about the environment to search in real-world scenes is well-studied, less is known about how new evidence informs search decisions, and it is unclear whether the two sources of information are used together optimally to guide search. The present study expanded on the literature on semantic guidance in visual search by modeling a Bayesian ideal observer’s use of long-standing semantic beliefs and recent experience in an active search task. The ability to adjust expectations to the task environment was simulated using the Bayesian ideal observer, and subjects’ performance was compared to ideal observers that depended on prior knowledge and recent experience to varying degrees. Target locations were either congruent with scene semantics, incongruent with what would be expected from scene semantics, or random. Half of the subjects were able to learn to search for the target in incongruent locations over repeated experimental sessions when it was optimal to do so. These results suggest that searchers can learn to prioritize recent experience over knowledge of scenes in a near-optimal fashion when it is beneficial to do so, as long as the evidence from recent experience was learnable.