What is the pop out effect in visual search experiment?

In this blog we will answer the question ‘What is the pop out effect in visual search experiment?’and provide an insight into how visual learning can be beneficial. 

A visual search experiment is a type of task of perception that requires the visual field or area to be scanned to look for a target stimulus.

This target stimulus is a particular object that has to be observed or found from amongst many present in the field. 

This is related to the visual perception. Visual perception is what the eyes see and the brain deciphers.

Perception is a complex process and not merely a  topographical representation of the visual world. Its basic goal is to recover the features of external objects.

This is a process that is termed as ‘unconscious inference’ by von Helmholtz.

The ability to interpret information form among the stimuli present in a visual field, depends on cognitive processes that are specific and prior knowledge.

Common everyday examples are looking for things in a purse or a bag, searching for an item on the shelves in the supermarket, looking for a child during home time in the school yard.

A place where the stimuli belong to the same category, it is hard to find one specific object. 

The ‘pop out’ effect is the ability of the object to ‘stand out’ from other objects due to its distinct features. Humans are searching.

They have evolved from neanderthals to who they are today due to this innate ability to search for. The ability to search for has evolved as humans have evolved.  

Searching itself is an important process and a lot of our everyday activities depend on it. Therefore, the ability of the brain to screen out the rest and focus on the one thing that is required is of extreme significance.

Without this pop out effect such ordinary tasks as driving and looking for things around the house or elsewhere will lose their vitality. 

It will take more time to find a target stimuli when there are more stimuli. The ‘target’ is the thing or the item that we are looking for and the distractors are the ones that we are not looking for, but they are still present in the visual field to distract the searcher.

The ‘pop out’ effect is made use of by companies who are selling their items through advertisements.

These advertisements are a clever way of directing the attention of the buyer to the target product that has to be sold. 

Examples of Pop outs in Daily Life

There are things that we lose amongst others in our daily life. Some examples are as follow:-

  • Looking for keys amongst other things
  • Looking for wallet
  • Searching for one item in the purse
  • Searching for our name in a list of names
  • Searching for your child amongst other children in school during home time
  • Looking for a shampoo or a brand of tea on the shelves of a supermarket

The Pop out Experiment

The psychologists call it the odd one out attention regulator. The pop out catches the attention of the observer or the onlooker due to its characteristic quality.

Psychologists have studied the fundamentals of searching. The way we search and look out for cues is detrimental in trying to make our search easy. 

They also study how conducive or non conducive our search can be. Therefore, planning of search games and other mind boggling activities involve a lot of mind study.

In the picture above, the instructions are ‘find the red circle’.

In the picture on the left from among the distractors it is easy to spot the red circle, popping out as a red dot from the green circles.

This phenomenon is called the ‘pop out’ phenomenon. 

In the picture on the right, the distractors are plenty and the time taken to search for the pop out is more than the time taken to spot the pop out from the left picture.

Conclusively, the greater the number of distractors, the greater time taken to spot the target.

In a visual search experiment the time taken to search the pop out or the target is called the search time. There are two types of searches.

One is the simple search with only one search criteria. The other is called the conjunctive search. In the latter type of search the target stimulus has two types of characteristics.

This also means that the stimulus is a conjunction of two features or characteristics.

Ann Treisman, a psychologist, studied the properties of simple patterns that enabled certain targets to be prominent within a group of distracters.

“Pre attentive processing” is a phenomenon that she laid emphasis on, saying that there is an automatic parallel process running alongside in  our brain.  

This process displays that the time taken to observe a target is not dependent on the number of distractors, but rather on this automatic parallel processing, that takes place before the mind focuses on the search task.

Finding hidden objects in this picture 

Find the hidden bunny in this picture

Based on the theories of educational psychology, teachers tend to use guided practice in school.

Elements of Perception Involved in Pop out Effect

The following elements of visual perception are involved in the pop out effect:-

  1. Visual discrimination

distinguishing one shape from another.

  1. Visual memory

remembering a specific form even when it is not in our visual field.

  1. Visual-spatial relationships

recognizing forms that might be the same, but are differing in spatial orientation.

  1. Visual form constancy

distinguishing similar forms that might vary in color, size, orientation or even spatial orientation and still match it to similar forms.

  1. Visual sequential memory

recalling uptil seven items sequentially.

  1. Visual figure/ground

finding partially visible objects. 

  1. Visual closure

recognizing familiar items even if they are incomplete.

Benefits of Visual Learning

Visual learning means learning through visual stimuli and retaining information best that is visually presented. 

There are a number of learning styles called the VARK model.

V= visual

A= auditory

R=reading and writing


Different people learn differently. The visual learners will learn more effectively simply by seeing.

The benefits of visual learning are manifold. It helps to retain information longer. The dictum ‘seeing is believing’ has a role to play!

Our short term memory retains words and keeps about 7 of them, but the images are embedded in the long term memory, where they stay for a very long time.

Information is communicated quickly and effectively in the form of images or videos. Therefore, in the modern classrooms teachers make use of visual learning aids so as to convey the information effectively.

This way students learn how to decipher one information form a visual field; the required information from the rest as well. The purpose of visual learning aids serves a lot of purposes. 

As per the Visual Teaching Alliance –

  1. Of all the information transmitted to the brain, 90% is visual.
  2. As opposed to text, visuals are processed 60,000x faster.
  3. Humans are capable of getting the sense of a visual scene in less than 1/10th of a second.
  4. 40% of nerve fibres are linked to the retina.
  5. Our brain can see images that last for only 13 milliseconds.
  6. Human eye can register 36,000 visual messages every hour.

The visual aids stimulate the imagination and enhances the cognitive abilities of a person. It is also called the visual language and consists of absorbing, comprehending and analysing new information.

For example, the infographic above is showing how we can automatically interpret relationships between objects. This is instant comprehension, effortlessly as well.

Emotions and visual information make up our memories as they are concerned with the same part of the brain anatomically.

To captivate the interest of the students visual stimuli are utmost important, especially for those areas of study that are boring for them. 

  • retention is upped by 29-42%
  • higher-order thinking skills are developed
  • Helps the fundamental abilities to be sharpened, enabling students to see and conceptualize
  • augments tactile hand-eye-mind connections, thus improving the ability to recall facts
  • retains learning for longer
  • helps students with learning differences and challenges and have a variety of differing abilities
  • a great intervention for individuals on the autism spectrum

In this blog we have answered the question ‘What is the pop out effect in visual search experiment?’and have provided an insight into how visual learning can be beneficial. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is parallel search?

Parallel search is a search task that involves searching for many items at the same time.

What factors affect selective attention?

The factors that affect selective attention include: sensory, attentional and perceptual processes. 

What is the pop out effect?

The “popout” effect is the subjective, immediate and an automatic recognition of a stimulus from among many similar or almost similar stimuli.

What do blind people see?

Blind people are unable to see anything if they are totally blind. Those who are partially blind can only partially see.

What are the 3 types of attention?

The three types of attention are: selective attention, divided attention, sustained attention and executive attention.

Titles to Read

  • Treisman, A. (1977). Focussed attention in the perception and retrieval of multidimensional stimuli. Perception and Psychophysics, 9, 40-50.
  • Stoet, G. (2011). Sex differences in search and gathering skills.Evolution and Human Behavior, 32, 416-422.
  • Visible Learning for Literacy, Grades K-12: Implementing the Practices That Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning (Corwin Literacy) by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey , et al.
  • Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning (Corwin Mathematics Series) by John Hattie , Douglas Fisher, et al.


  • https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27025501/
  • https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-016-1034-5
  • https://www.psytoolkit.org/lessons/visualsearch.html
  • https://www.cognifit.com/science/cognitive-skills/visual-perception

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