The influence of category representativeness on the low prevalence effect in visual search

Ryan E. O’Donnell, Brad Wyble

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Visual search is greatly affected by the appearance rate of given target types, such that low-prevalence items are harder to detect, which has consequences for real-world search tasks where target frequency cannot be balanced. However, targets that are highly representative of a categorically defined task set are also easier to find. We hypothesized that targets that are highly representative are less vulnerable to low-prevalence effects because an observer’s attentional set prioritizes guidance toward them even when they are rare. We assessed this hypothesis by first determining the categorical structure of “prohibited carry-ons” via an exemplar-naming task, and used this structure to assess how category representativeness interacted with prevalence. Specifically, from the exemplar-naming task we selected a commonly named (knives) and rarely named (gas cans) target for a search task in which one of the targets was shown infrequently. As predicted, highly representative targets were found more easily than their less representative counterparts, but they also were less affected by prevalence manipulations. Experiment 1b replicated the results with targets matched for emotional valence (water bottles and fireworks). These findings demonstrate the powerful explanatory power of theories of attentional guidance that incorporate the dynamic influence of recent experience with the knowledge that comes from life experience to better predict behavioral outcomes associated with high-stakes search environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)634-642
Number of pages9
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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