Perception & Psychophysics

, Volume 70, Issue 2, pp 314-328

First online:

The role of memory and restricted context in repeated visual search

  • Melina A. KunarAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Warwick Email author 
  • , Stephen FlusbergAffiliated withStanford University
  • , Jeremy M. WolfeAffiliated withHarvard Medical SchoolBrigham and Women’s Hospital


Previous studies have shown that the efficiency of visual search does not improve when participants search through the same unchanging display for hundreds of trials (repeated search), even though the participants have a clear memory of the search display. In this article, we ask two important questions. First, why do participants not use memory to help search the repeated display? Second, can context be introduced so that participants are able to guide their attention to the relevant repeated items? Experiments 1–4 show that participants choose not to use a memory strategy because, under these conditions, repeated memory search is actually less efficient than repeated visual search, even though the latter task is in itself relatively inefficient. However, when the visual search task is given context, so that only a subset of the items are ever pertinent, participants can learn to restrict their attention to the relevant stimuli (Experiments 5 and 6).