The dominant theories of visual search assume that search is a process involving comparisons of individual items against a target description that is based on the properties of the target in isolation. Here, we present four experiments that demonstrate that this holds true only in difficult search. In medium search it seems that the relation between the target and neighbouring items is also part of the target description.
We used two sets of oriented lines to construct the search items. The cardinal set contained horizontal and vertical lines, the diagonal set contained left diagonal and right diagonal lines. In all experiments, participants knew the identity of the target and the line set used to construct it. In difficult search this knowledge allowed performance to improve in displays where only half of the search items came from the same line set as the target (50% eligibility), relative to displays where all items did (100%eligibility). However, in medium search, performance was actually poorer for 50%eligibility, especially on target-absent trials.
This opposite effect of ineligible items in medium search and difficult search is hard to reconcile with theories based on individual items. It is more in line with theories that conceive search as a sequence of fixations where the number of items processed during a fixation depends on the difficulty of the search task: When search is medium, multiple items are processed per fixation. But when search is difficult, only a single item is processed.