July 2, 2012 at 8:37 AM ET
Have you ever stashed your wallet in a safe place, only to come up short when you search for it later?
Turns out, we hide things in different locations than where we look for things.
Eric Legge, a doctoral student in comparative psychology at the University of Alberta, and his adviser, Marcia Spetch, a professor in the psychology department, examined how adults hide and seek.
The idea came about after one of Spetch's students with a law enforcement background asked about past research on how humans hide things, in order to improve police searches. As it turns out, there were numerous studies about how people locate objects in a virtual environment but no studies about how people hide and seek in real-world settings.
For the study, Legge asked 102 participants to hide three index cards within two minutes under 70 tiles placed around a room with couches, tables, pictures, and desks. The room included a dark corner and a window. Then the subjects had another two minutes to locate cards concealed in the room.
When hiding their index cards, participants obscured them under tiles in the center of the room and immediately inside the entrance. When searching, participants looked at the darkest parts of the room, avoiding the open areas (exactly where they hid their own cards).
“We found people didn’t search where they would hide and they didn’t hide where they would search,” Legge explained. “It was a weird disconnect where people think they are kind of smarter than the other person and would over-think where they would hide [the cards].”
The results suggest that people use different strategies to select hiding places than to search for objects hidden by others.
Participants also avoided stashing the cards near windows. Legge suspects the hiders believe a window enables others to observe their actions. Subjects were not allowed to move the cards once they were hidden, and Legge noticed that both hiders and seekers took their time, sizing up the room prior their search for cards or hiding location.
After the subjects completed the real-world task, they participated in the same test in a virtual environment. The virtual room resembled the real room, and in the virtual world participants employed the same concealment tricks.
Understanding how people hide items could potentially aid police searches or help the military find camouflaged items like IEDs.
“We wanted to understand these biases so we could use them for training programs [for police officers]," Legge said. "If people have a bias toward hiding things in corners or near walls or something like that — and if you only have limited amount of time to search for things — you can use those heuristics to search for something off the bat.”
The paper appears in the online journal PloS ONE.
More from The Body Odd: