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As a general rule, if it is easy to detect a target in a visual scene, it is also easy to detect its absence. To account for this, models of visual search explain search termination as resulting either from counterfactual reasoning over second-order representations of search efficiency, automatic extraction of ensemble statistics of a display, or heuristic adjustment of a search termination strategy based on previous trials. Traditional few-subjects/many-trials lab-based experiments render it impossible to disentangle the unique contribution of these different processes to absence pop-out - the immediate recognition that a feature is missing from a display. In 2 preregistered large-scale online experiments (N1 = 1187; N2 = 887) we show that search termination times are already aligned with target identification times in the very first trials of the experiment before any experience with target presence. Exploratory analysis reveals that explicit metacognitive knowledge about search efficiency is not necessary for efficient search termination. We conclude that for basic stimulus properties, efficient inference about absence is independent of task experience and of explicit metacognitive knowledge about visual search. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).

Original publication




Journal article


J Exp Psychol Gen

Publication Date





2494 - 2510


Heuristics, Humans, Metacognition, Pattern Recognition, Visual, Problem Solving, Reaction Time, Recognition, Psychology