Homo economicus in visual search

Christof Koch
Pietro Perona
Journal of Vision, 9(2009)


How do reward outcomes affect early visual performance? Previous studies found a suboptimal influence, but they ignored the non-linearity in how subjects perceived the reward outcomes. In contrast, we find that when the non-linearity is accounted for, humans behave optimally and maximize expected reward. Our subjects were asked to detect the presence of a familiar target object in a cluttered scene. They were rewarded according to their performance. We systematically varied the target frequency and the reward/penalty policy for detecting/missing the targets. We find that 1) decreasing the target frequency will decrease the detection rates, in accordance with the literature. 2) Contrary to previous studies, increasing the target detection rewards will compensate for target rarity and restore detection performance. 3) A quantitative model based on reward maximization accurately predicts human detection behavior in all target frequency and reward conditions; thus, reward schemes can be designed to obtain desired detection rates for rare targets. 4) Subjects quickly learn the optimal decision strategy; we propose a neurally plausible model that exhibits the same properties. Potential applications include designing reward schemes to improve detection of life-critical, rare targets (e.g., cancers in medical images).

Research Areas