Mess
People are very inefficient at searching for things - the best strategy is to focus on the clutter and forget clearer areas where we might have put something. iStock

The reason that most people are bad at finding things is because we spend far too much time looking in tidy areas that clearly do not hold the object of our search, a psychological study has found.

People tend to waste a lot of time and attention on uncluttered areas rather than delving into a mess where an object – be it our keys, purse or phone – probably hides, according to a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

In the study, 14 people were asked to look at an image of a number of lines pointing in different directions and find one that was tilted 45 degrees to the right. The screen was divided into a simple array – with all the other lines pointing in a single direction except the target line, when it was present – and a messier array, with lines pointing randomly in many different directions.

Wasting time

Study participants looked through 160 arrays in which the target was either on the simple side or the messy side, or not at all, and pressed a button when they had either found it or decided that it was not present. While they were hunting, researchers tracked their eye movements, counting the number of places they looked and how long they spent looking.

In both experiments, the majority of participants made roughly equal eye movements while examining the simple array and the messy array, a far from ideal strategy, study author Anna Nowakowska, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, told IBTimes UK.

"If you think of two tables, a clear table and a messy table, you can see out of the corner of your eye whether a pen is on the clear table," Nowakowska said. It actually does not take any eye movements at all to search a clear space for a target as our peripheral vision tells us whether or not it is there. But instead of focusing on the messy area to find the missing object, people keep returning to the clear space to find it.

Searching
The majority of people are not very efficient searchers. iStock

"It's very inefficient," Nowakowska said. "If you spend all the time looking at the difficult side, you're more likely to find the target. Looking at the easy side doesn't give any new information – it's a waste of time."

Super-searchers

So the ideal strategy for efficient searching is to spend all your time looking in messy spaces with only the briefest glance at areas free of clutter, she said. There were just a couple of people who followed this strategy in Nowakowska's study.

"We found one super-searcher who's very close to optimal, spending almost 99% of the time searching on the difficult side. They didn't go to the easy side almost at all."

However, the scattered but inefficient strategy that most people took of looking almost equally at all areas could have its own advantages, Nowakowska said. Making a calculated judgment of the best place to look next in each movement could simply take up too much time and energy.

"We make about four eye movements per second. Your brain would have to make all these calculations before making any eye movement and these are quite complicated. This might slow the search."

The mystery of the super-searchers, and how they manage to focus on just the right places, was a project for further research, Nowakowska said.