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Why Things Go Missing

From science, the best way to find lost stuff

Why Things Go Missing

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According to researchers, we’re incredibly bad at searching for misplaced items.

You’re running late, rushing around the house trying to find where you left your keys or wallet or phone — and, of course, not finding the missing object. That’s because, according to researchers at the University of Aberdeen in the U.K., we’re incredibly bad at searching for misplaced items.

Here’s the problem: We typically look either in the last place we remember having the item or in the place we’d least expect it to be. But if we accurately recalled where we last had it, it wouldn’t be lost now, would it? And unless we’re prone to leaving our keys in the refrigerator or our wallet in the microwave, it’s not too likely that either will show up in some totally random place.

What researchers say is the best strategy is to stop searching in uncluttered places. Look in a messy area that makes your missing item harder to spot.

"If you're looking for your keys you should focus on the areas with the most clutter, because if they were somewhat more obvious, you would have found them by now," study co-author Anna Maria Nowakowska told She said the study suggests that people "waste a great deal of time looking in locations that they already know don't contain the thing they are looking for."

In the study, published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, participants were given a sort of “find Waldo” visual puzzle to solve, choosing between an easy-to-search image and a harder one. Scientists tracked the subjects’ eye movements and found they spent nearly equal amounts of time looking at both images.

That’s what we do at home when searching for those darn keys — spend too much time looking in the easy-to-search places and too little time searching the difficult spots.

The study’s findings, say researchers, have broader implications, as well — concerning, for example, how people prioritize multiple tasks. Could it be that we spend more time and resources doing the easy stuff to avoid tackling the really hard things?

If nothing else, it could help everyone find those missing keys just a little faster.

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