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There are many examples from the scientific literature of visual search tasks in which the length, scope and success rate of the search have been shown to vary according to the searcher's expectations of whether the search target is likely to be present. This phenomenon has major practical implications, for instance in cancer screening, when the prevalence of the condition is low and the consequences of a missed disease diagnosis are severe. We consider this problem from an empirical Bayesian perspective to explain how the effect of a low prior probability, subjectively assessed by the searcher, might impact on the extent of the search. We show how the searcher’s posterior probability that the target is present depends on the prior probability and the proportion of possible target locations already searched, and also consider the implications of imperfect search, when the probability of false-positive and false-negative decisions is non-zero. The theoretical results are applied to two studies of radiologists’ visual assessment of pulmonary lesions on chest radiographs. Further application areas in diagnostic medicine and airport security are also discussed.

Original publication




Journal article


Royal Society Open Science

Publication Date