Efficiency and accuracy of visual search develop at different rates from early childhood through early adulthood
Abstract: Most studies of visual search across the life span have focused on classic feature and conjunction searches in which observers search for a fixed, simple shape target among relatively homogeneous distractors over a block of multiple trials. In the present study, we examine a more realistic task in which participants (4 to 25 years-old) look for images of real objects, presented amongst a heterogeneous array of other objects. The target is unique on every trial, unlike in previous developmental studies of visual search. Our new touchscreen-based “Pirate-Treasure” search also allows the testing of younger children within a video-game-like task. With this method, we tested a large sample (n = 293) of typically developing children and young adults. We assessed the developmental course of different search metrics like search efficiency, motor response differences, and accuracy (misses and false-alarm errors). Results show the most rapid time courses in development for accuracy. Search slopes reach the young adult level most slowly. The intercepts of the Reaction Time (RT) × Set Size function are often attributed to nonsearch perceptual and motor components of the task. The intercept time course is intermediate between accuracy and slope. Interestingly, these developmental functions follow time courses proposed in neuropsychological models of executive function development. This suggests that a single, video-game-like search task could be useful in routine assessments of cognitive development.