Seek And Ye Shall Find, Maybe

Some of us have been known to be referred to as "squirrels” because we tend to collect things, things which are often not of a great deal of use, but that is rather maligning the squirrel. A thrifty squirrel, like many other small mammals and some birds makes food caches for the winter.

As they don’t want other squirrels or mammals to find the cache and devour everything, they use many small caches, which leaves them with a memory problem. Now Legge et al of the U of Alberta began to be concerned about people squirreling stuff away and other people finding it, so they carried out a study with over a thousand undergraduates who had been away from home long enough for them to be no longer relying on their moms to keep track for them. They published their results in PLoS ONE last week (1).

The experiments were in two locations – a real room with 70 floor tiles to hide things under and a virtual room on the computer which looked somewhat similar. They ran a series of experiments where they had to hide cards and others had to seek, through limited choice seeking to the participants having to find what they had hidden.

Depending on the seek and ye shall find strategy  people tended to seek in dark corners but hide things in the center of the rooms. With limited search choices available, the strategy was to disperse widely and when they knew that they had to be able to relocate their own stuff (without mom’s help remember), they tended to hide stuff in the middle of the room so that they wouldn’t have to cast about so widely.

Well, this seems to show that people use different strategies for thinking about locations when hiding things than when searching. That is hiding things in the well-lit center of a room, but scrabbling about in dark corners looking for stuff. Quite a disconnect in logic there.

It is interesting that the authors suggest that future work may be focused on searching for contraband or IEDs. More likely the first use will be in developing more difficult computer games where participants have to collect hidden objects to progress to higher levels.


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