Behavior

Here's Why It's So Hard for Us to Find Stuff We've Misplaced

We spend way too much time looking in the wrong places — but science offers clues to improve our house hunting.

We've all been there. We know we put our keys on the counter near the kitchen, but they've gone missing. And some 20 minutes later, we're still searching in a panic to get out the door.

According to a new study conducted by the University of Aberdeen in the UK, if you're completely at a loss when you're searching for missing items, you're in good company. The study suggests that humans are surprisingly unproductive with their eye movements when searching for items, and when presented with two scenarios - an uncluttered area and an area in disarray - they'll waste far too much time searching the uncluttered area, yielding no results.

Indeed, a quick glance at the uncluttered area should be enough to detect if the missing item is there, yet humans spend far too much time looking at and then revisiting the clean space.

"If you're looking for your keys you should focus on the areas with the most clutter, because if they were somewhat more obvious, you would have found them by now," said Anna Maria Nowakowska, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen. She said the study suggests that people "waste a great deal of time looking in locations that they already know don't contain the thing they are looking for."

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She and her team set up two scenarios. In the first, 14 participants searched for a target, which was a line segment (a line with end points) set 45 degrees to the right. The target was hidden among other line segments, which were often set 45 degrees to the left. They then manipulated the line segments' orientations to create situations where it would be "hard" or "easy" to find the target. These scenarios either varied a lot - making them heterogeneous - or not very much - making them very homogeneous.

"We ran a control experiment to make sure that people could see the target without moving their eyes with the homogeneous lines and that the target 'popped out' from the background so they could see it in their peripheral vision," Nowakowska said. "This was not the case for the target on the heterogeneous background; people really had to look around to find the target when the other line segments were highly variable."

In addition to struggling to find the target, participants became fixated unnecessarily, sacrificing speed for a perceived - but not actual - gain in information.

Nowakowska explains that the best search strategy in this experiment requires actually never looking at the easy half of the display at all. "If the target were present on the easy side, you could easily see it using peripheral vision," she said. "Looking at the easy side gives you no new information; it only slows you down."

Perhaps most surprising was that participants directed their attention to the easy side for nearly half of all eye movements. However, the study did turn up mixed results. Some people spent too much time on the easy side, others concentrated their search on the more complicated side and still others split their attention equally between the two sides.

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The researchers discovered that while humans fail to give enough attention to areas that provide the most information, they also make a bunch of unnecessary eye movements throughout the process, creating an average of seven eye movements before deciding whether an object was present or not and then moving on to the next spot.

In the future, the team hopes to further explore individual differences in search strategies, and dive deeper into why certain people become fixated on different areas.

These findings can also provide clues for broader implications, such as how and why humans prioritize certain types of competing tasks.

In essence, both situations present a test of intuition, which requires humans to decide whether to invest in a single goal or split resources between two goals, Nowakowska said.

The takeaway: When searching for your missing keys, defer to your messiest spots first. Or try harder not to lose your keys in the first place, since science suggests it'll take you far too much time to find them.

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