A study published in the journal Current Biology looks into the problems involved in visually searching for exceedingly rare targets and comes to an unsettling conclusion: “If you don’t find it often, you often don’t find it,” says study author Jeremy Wolfe. In other words, we are not very good at finding things that are rarely there.
In one experiment, Wolfe took 20 X-rayed images of luggage stuffed with guns and knives, and mixed those images into stacks of images of X-rayed luggage that didn’t have guns and knives.
“If you stick those 20 bags into a stack of 40 bags, so on average there’s a gun and knife in 50 percent of the bags,” Wolfe says, “people missed about 7 percent of the bags.”
But when he took the exact same 20 bags and stuck them in a stack of 2,000 bags so that the targets showed up only 2 percent of the time, people got significantly worse. “All of a sudden, people were missing about 30 percent of the bags,” Wolfe says.
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Doesn’t inspire much confidence when it comes to the TSA’s screening.