Better Living Through Better Design


In a highly cluttered visual field, people have a harder time picking out a target of interest, and often choose wrongly. Not a surprise, that. More interestingly, however, is that people tend to have high confidence that they are correct.

One might intuitively expect that as background noise created by distracters and errors increase, confidence in one’s decision plummets. But in a new study published in PLoS Biology, Stefano Baldassi, Nicola Megna, and David Burr show that just the opposite happens. When they asked observers to search for a tilted target embedded in vertical distracters and estimate the target’s tilt, the observers often overestimated the magnitude of the tilt--and did so with a high degree of confidence in their decision.

The authors used signal detection theory to make quantitative predictions about the probability that an observer will detect a target under cluttered conditions. SDT assumes the brain represents each element in a visual search display as an independent variable with its own noise. It also assumes that when the observer isn’t sure which stimulus is the target, she monitors all stimuli, and performance suffers. Thus, increasing the number of distracters (trying to find your friend on a busy street or a document on a messy desk) increases the background noise of the visual system’s representation while reducing the accuracy and reaction time of performing the task.

As a general condition, I wonder what role this might play in individual decision-making over a vast range of choices. Specifically, I got to thinking about the contentions some make about having "too much choice." (See the Barry Schwartz quote in Postrel's post.) The claim that too much choice makes people worse off, ably dealt with in Postrel's full article, leads to the conclusion that choice ought to be limited. But what if the claims of dissatisfaction with abundance are simply picking up on a different problem?

From the Innovations Report article:

The authors explain that while their study focused on "simple perceptual decisions about a single stimulus attribute," the same type of processes may also apply to complex cognitive tasks involving problem solving and memory. If people find themselves confronted with multiple events in a chaotic, confusing environment, they may decide about some aspect of the situation and be totally wrong even though they have full confidence in their decision. The consequences of such a phenomenon could be relatively trivial, explaining why professional athletes often end up wasting their time arguing questionable calls with an official.

Sounds to me like being presented with complex visual fields is a bit disrupting to a lot of people. So much so that it results in frustration. While it might not be described as "chaotic" in terms of movement, the whole aisle of toothpaste options noted by Karrie Jacobs observes in Postrel's article, as well as the vast array of items in shopping malls, car dealerships, convenience stores, the newspaper ad pages...all certainly presents a cluttered visual pattern, what with all of the conflicting colors, shapes, lettering, and advertising thrown in by the store itself. Perhaps those negatives that Shwartz says pile up are a result of the displeasing sensation from the visual information overload, and not necessarily a dislike for the amount of choice.

Maybe the problem is just that we have really bad graphic design.


If you haven't seen it already, here's a humorous illustration of two different approaches to design:

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