Conci Anna 2019

Finding the water bottle, but missing the small weapon: Research on the role of the working memory during hand luggage checks at the airport

Visual search allows humans to identify certain objects: For example, a doctor can recognise dangerous anomalies in x-ray images, or airport security staff can use x-ray technology to identify items inside our hand luggage. At the Department of Psychology, Anna Conci, recipient of an ÖAW-DOC scholarship, is studying the influence of the working memory on the search performance.

Professional “visual searchers”, including security staff, who scan hand luggage for dangerous items, receive appropriate training. Nonetheless, research has revealed a critical weak point, which also affects these experts: When there are two items to be found, it is often the case that only one is detected. This is a serious problem, for instance when a water bottle is noticed, but a weapon is missed. Psychological studies have repeatedly provided evidence of this phenomenon.

Especially in those instances, where the number of objects to be found is unknown, this effect plays a decisive part. “Science has yet to reach a shared understanding of why this phenomenon exists and which underlying cognitive mechanisms are responsible”, Anna Conci, doctoral student at the Department of Psychology, tells us. In her current research, she is investigating the effects of the working memory on the visual search performance. She hypothesizes: During the course of visual search, optimal speed and precision are impeded by “objects” held in the working memory. Moreover, she also hopes to establish the extent to which the objects in the working memory improve or impair the search performance in comparison to objects that bear no similarity whatsoever.

For the purpose of her work, Anna Conci has conducted extensive experiments  with students – both in Klagenfurt and at the Fernuniversität Hagen, the distance learning university where she previously worked. The heterogeneity of the student population in Hagen allowed her to put together a meaningful group. One of the tools she used was an eye tracker, which recorded the eye movements that occurred during the search. The resulting data permit conclusions to be drawn on the cognitive processes involved in the visual search. To ensure verisimilitude in her studies, she used genuine images taken during real airport security checks. Her next task is to analyse these data and subsequently to bring together the results in the form of journal articles.

We asked Anna Conci to tell us whether it is possible to have a talent for “visual searching”, or whether one can improve over time. Drawing on the investigations she has already completed she tells us: “In Hagen, students tested themselves over a period of 20 days. The results show daily improvement. Even after a gap of nine days, we found that it is possible to pick up at virtually the same level of search performance, and then continue to improve.”

Anna Conci came to Klagenfurt from South Tyrol to pursue her doctoral degree. It was mostly a coincidence that she has ended up in the field of science: “When I finished my Master’s degree, Merim Bilalić, who supervises my doctoral thesis, offered me a position on a project team. That eventually led to the research job at the Fernuniversität Hagen.” She gains huge enjoyment from her scientific work: “ It is a creative activity, we are constantly challenged to think in terms of finding solutions, and new questions arise again and again.” In the past, her career has always aligned well with her plans. In recent years, she has focused heavily on writing research proposals, with the aim of securing a stable financial foundation for her work. Ultimately, this produced the intended result: As a scholarship recipient of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (DOC), she is affiliated with the Department of Psychology, and is free to devote her time exclusively to her research over the next two years.

A few words with … Anna Conci

What would you be doing now, if you had not become a scientist?
I’ve never really given that any thought. I would probably have trained to be a neuropsychologist.

Do your parents understand what it is you are working on?
I believe they do have a rough idea of the subject. I’m less sure whether they understand why and how I do my work.

What is the first thing you do when you arrive at the office in the morning?
I respond to e-mails.

Do you have proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?
That very much depends on what stage my work is currently at.

What makes you furious?

What calms you down?
Spending time with my family in South Tyrol

Who do you regard as the greatest scientist in history, and why?
There have been many highly impressive people in the past. Marie Curie is certainly an excellent example. Despite difficult circumstances, she achieved the truly remarkable.

What are you afraid of?
I am afraid of losing people who are important to me.

What are you looking forward to?
The many things, be they small or large, that life is holding in store for me.