Over­com­ing the pop-out ef­fect

The tech­ni­cal term for our neu­ro­log­i­cal bias to­ward pres­ence is “visual search asym­me­try,” but I pre­fer the plain old nickel talk: “pop-out.”

EQUUS - - Contents - By Janet L. Jones, PhD

Build a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with your horse---and im­prove your part­ner­ship--by train­ing your­self to iden­tify and re­ward the ab­sence of mis­be­hav­ior.

Young Opie is still learn­ing to re­spect hu­man space and stand qui­etly while be­ing tacked up. He has a long way to go be­fore he can trot a ground pole, ne­go­ti­ate a bridge or jump a Grand Prix course. And, nat­u­rally, he’ll make mis­takes along the way. For one thing, the 3-year-old some­times tries to rub his face against peo­ple while be­ing bri­dled. His trainer doesn’t want to make a fed­eral case out of this, given that Opie has so many more crit­i­cal lessons to learn. At least he’s drop­ping his head and ac­cept­ing the bit! So, each time the geld­ing turns to touch her, the trainer pushes his face away, gen­tly but firmly. She does not pun­ish mis­de­meanors, but she does not al­low them to con­tinue. For sev­eral days, she bri­dles from the left, Opie turns to her and tries to rub, and she pushes his face back to cen­ter. Her brain is de­signed to no­tice his mis­be­hav­ior. One day, the young horse holds his face for­ward while be­ing bri­dled. In ef­fect, he is ask­ing a ques­tion---“Is this what you want?” But the trainer doesn’t re­al­ize that she has been asked a ques­tion; hu­man brains are un­likely to no­tice the ab­sence of a mis­be­hav­ior. As a re­sult, Opie has been shown the one thing not to do, but he doesn’t know which of a thou­sand al­ter­nate be­hav­iors to of­fer in­stead. What’s more, he re­ceives no re­ward when he pro­duces the de­sired be­hav­ior.

You might imag­ine that the trainer’s fail­ure to no­tice Opie’s ef­fort is merely co­in­ci­den­tal, but it’s not. Hu­man brains are de­signed to per­ceive pres­ence au­to­mat­i­cally, but per­ceiv­ing ab­sence re­quires time, ef­fort and at­ten­tion. This in­nate neu­ro­log­i­cal bias causes us to miss chances to teach our horses what we ex­pect by re­ward­ing them for de­sired per­for­mance.


Hu­man brain bias to­ward pres­ence is easy to demon­strate. Look at illustrati­on A (page 38) and find the horse with a fore­lock. OK, great. Now, check out illustrati­on B and find the horse without a fore­lock. For a stronger demon­stra­tion, show both ar­rays to some­one who hasn’t seen this ar­ti­cle and time him while he searches each one.

DEMON­STRA­TION: The hu­man brain is de­signed to per­ceive pres­ence au­to­mat­i­cally, but notic­ing ab­sence re­quires time, ef­fort and at­ten­tion. To ex­pe­ri­ence the pop-out ef­fect, com­pare how long it takes for you to find the horse with a fore­lock in illustrati­on A with the time it takes to iden­tify the horse without a fore­lock in illustrati­on B.

It takes longer to search for the ab­sence of some­thing than to no­tice the pres­ence of the same thing. Con­se­quently, peo­ple re­quire more time to find the horse whose fore­lock is ab­sent, even though this im­age would be very un­usual. The process feels more dif­fi­cult, too; you have to look more care­fully at illustrati­on B than at illustrati­on A. These dif­fer­ences in time and ef­fort oc­cur be­cause our brains have to work against them­selves to search for ab­sence. They must over­ride their nat­u­ral bias to­ward pres­ence and search each face for a fore­lock. Seek­ing pres­ence is au­to­matic: The one fore­lock pops out of the ar­ray with no ef­fort. Seek­ing ab­sence re­quires work. This re­sult is so re­li­able that it’s used in teach­ing the ba­sics of cog­ni­tive sci­ence and re­search meth­ods to col­lege stu­dents. It’s ev­ery sci­ence pro­fes­sor’s dream---for­giv­ing enough to ac­com­mo­date a budding ex­per­i­menter’s mis­takes, but strong enough to yield a sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect. Most psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects re­sult in tiny

dif­fer­ences mea­sured by mil­lisec­ond timers, but we can prove pop-out with the sec­ond hand on a cheap wrist­watch.

The tech­ni­cal term for our neu­ro­log­i­cal bias to­ward pres­ence is “visual search asym­me­try,” but I pre­fer the plain old nickel talk: “popout.” Dis­cov­ered dur­ing the 1980s by cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Anne Treis­man, pop-out oc­curs across eth­nic­i­ties, so­cial back­grounds, age ranges, in­comes and ed­u­ca­tional lev­els. It per­sists re­gard­less of the num­ber of items in the dis­play. In other words, you will find the fore­lock (in illustrati­on A) in the same amount of time re­gard­less of whether it is em­bed­ded among 50 horse faces or 500. It’s an un­con­scious and in­vol­un­tary process.

On the other hand, find­ing the horse without a fore­lock (in illustrati­on B) re­quires at­ten­tion. We must search the dis­play item by item, tak­ing time to in­spect each face briefly. Be­cause of that ef­fort­ful search, find­ing the ab­sence of a fore­lock takes more time as the over­all num­ber of items in the dis­play in­creases.

What I’m get­ting at is this: Hu­man brains are bi­ased pow­er­fully in the di­rec­tion of pres­ence and use dif­fer­ent brain pro­cesses for the two types of search. For that rea­son, we must train our­selves to iden­tify the ab­sence of mis­be­hav­ior that horses use when they ask whether they are meet­ing our ex­pec­ta­tions.


Why do our brains rely so much on pres­ence rather than ab­sence? The two most cred­i­ble pos­si­bil­i­ties are evo­lu­tion and mem­ory. First, brains evolved over time, with greater sur­vival among in­di­vid­u­als who could find food and no­tice threats quickly. There is lit­tle evo­lu­tion­ary need for speed at iden­ti­fy­ing the ab­sence of berries on a bush. In­stead, sur­vival de­pends on the pres­ence of berries. Like­wise, in a world where preda­tors chase you down and eat you, it’s much more im­por­tant to no­tice a preda­tor than to get all riled up about its ab­sence.

Sec­ond, in ad­di­tion to the evo­lu­tion­ary ar­gu­ment, a stim­u­lus acts as a re­minder to brains that are fo­cused on other ac­tiv­i­ties. Let’s re­turn to Opie for a mo­ment. We are bridling the horse be­cause we are fo­cused on pre­par­ing him to be rid­den. We are busy groom­ing, tack­ing up, con­tem­plat­ing the more crit­i­cal lessons to come over the next hour or so. If Opie doesn’t rub to­day, we for­get that it’s an is­sue. To over­come this brain-based slant, we have to study the horse’s ef­forts to com­mu­ni­cate. Once you bring ab­sence of mis­be­hav­ior into your train­ing radar, you will ex­pand your abil­ity to iden­tify and re­ward it. Seek the good!

Our hu­man in­cli­na­tion to ig­nore the ab­sence of mis­be­hav­ior is rel­e­vant not only to in­ter­ac­tions with our horses,

but with all of our an­i­mal and hu­man friends. Close fam­ily mem­bers hear lit­tle from us when they are be­hav­ing well, but all too much when they do some­thing wrong. Turn that equa­tion around, and you’ll have hap­pier in­ter­ac­tions with more pos­i­tive be­hav­ior.


If hu­man and equine brains evolved over time to find food and no­tice threats, shouldn’t horses also ex­pe­ri­ence search asym­me­try? I’m will­ing to guess that they do. Ver­te­brate mam­malian brains have much phys­i­ol­ogy in com­mon, and per­cep­tion is crit­i­cal to all of them. Items that pop out au­to­mat­i­cally in the hu­man brain in­clude pres­ence, color, shape, move­ment and tilt.

Cer­tainly, move­ment would pop out au­to­mat­i­cally to the equine brain. The horse is de­signed to run, not to stand around pon­der­ing an ap­proach­ing lion: “Hmm, could be a cat, aw­fully large though, let’s just wait and see.” No, a horse’s brain needs to cap­ture move­ment un­con­sciously and send him on his way pronto. That’s why he tends to shy and bolt at un­ex­pected mo­tion. He doesn’t have the time---or the ca­pac­ity---to de­lib­er­ate.

A com­mon com­plaint among riders is that a horse has seen an ob­ject “a mil­lion times” and still shies from it. Yes, the horse is hard-wired to shy; that will be his nat­u­ral re­ac­tion ev­ery time. At best, he will learn to over­come that nat­u­ral re­ac­tion, but it doesn’t just van­ish. We can help our equine friends by over­rul­ing our own search asym­me­try. Watch for in­stances in which the horse does not shy from a scary sight and praise him for that ab­sence of mis­be­hav­ior. As he be­comes more re­laxed, in­vite him to ex­plore the ob­ject from a dis­tance and re­ward him for quiet cu­rios­ity. Show him that dom­i­nant horses and fa­mil­iar peo­ple are not afraid of it. Even­tu­ally, your horse will be cu­ri­ous enough--and will trust you enough---to ap­proach and sniff all sides of the item. Pa­tience and re­ward are much more ef­fec­tive than in­sis­tence.

Col­ors that are vis­i­ble to a horse are likely to pop out as well. Horses see blues, greens and some yellows clearly---use these col­ors to be sure a horse no­tices haz­ards. For ex­am­ple, red sur­vey tape tied to flag a tem­po­rary fence is in­vis­i­ble to a horse against a green pas­ture. In­stead, use bright yel­low, which will pop out. Whether horses ex­pe­ri­ence the bias of pres­ence as op­posed to ab­sence will re­quire em­pir­i­cal test­ing. Cer­tainly, horses are ex­cel­lent ob­servers, notic­ing the pres­ence of new or un­usual ob­jects and tiny dif­fer­ences in place­ment or bright­ness that hu­mans rarely per­ceive. But what about ab­sence? Based on anec­dote and ex­pe­ri­ence, my guess is that their brains are bi­ased against find­ing ab­sence, just as ours are. It would be the very rare horse to shy from an ob­ject that is sud­denly miss­ing!


Suc­cess­ful train­ing de­pends on a horse’s abil­ity to un­der­stand what we ex­pect. We can re­duce equine con­fu­sion by hon­ing our abil­ity to iden­tify the ab­sence of mis­be­hav­ior. Opie is try­ing to crack the for­mi­da­ble code of hu­man ex­pec­ta­tion---let’s help him out.

Too of­ten, we com­mu­ni­cate which be­hav­iors we don’t want but fail to con­vey which ones we do want. We tell the horse, in ef­fect, “Don’t wig­gle, don’t buck, don’t jig, don’t shy, don’t bolt, don’t go too fast, don’t go too slow, don’t, don’t, don’t.” It’s like a bro­ken record---for those of us who re­mem­ber records---in which the horse is con­stantly be­ing cor­rected rather than en­cour­aged.

The horse learns quickly what we do not want be­cause we show him. Yep, no bucking un­der sad­dle, got it. But think of how much more com­pli­cated it is for a horse---or a dog, child, friend, spouse---to suss out what we do want. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less! With an­i­mals, we have to use non­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­clud­ing re­ward to con­vey our ex­pec­ta­tions.

Be­gin to think in terms of what you

want from your horse: “Do stand still, do move for­ward, do walk on, do ob­serve scary things calmly, do slow down when asked, do rely on me.” Turn­ing your man­ner of per­cep­tion up­side down--from don’ts to do’s---is not as easy as it might seem. It takes time and ef­fort be­cause of our in­nate brain asym­me­try. But think­ing in this way in­creases your re­ward op­por­tu­ni­ties. Sud­denly, the horse is be­ing taught how much he does well, what a good horse he is, how easy it is to be suc­cess­ful at meet­ing hu­man ex­pec­ta­tions. As your at­ti­tude be­comes more pleas­ant, he can learn in com­fort. The an­i­mal’s mo­ti­va­tion to per­form in­creases dra­mat­i­cally when we ar­range op­por­tu­ni­ties for him to suc­ceed.

A horse who re­ceives praise for var­i­ous be­hav­iors will some­times “guess” what you want. One of my horses was not per­mit­ted to eat for 12 hours prior to gen­eral anes­the­sia for surgery. When I ar­rived the morn­ing of the op­er­a­tion, he be­gan per­form­ing his re­ward reper­toire, one ac­tion af­ter an­other, in hopes of re­ceiv­ing food. I use ed­i­ble re­wards spar­ingly, so he had to choose from only a few be­hav­iors.

He started with a big “down dog” yoga stretch, forelegs straight out in front of him, nose be­tween his knees, croup high. No luck. He stared at me, then tried it again, legs al­most par­al­lel to the floor this time. He held the pose. I be­gan to feel guilty. He moved on to pop­ping his lips to­gether, an ac­tion I had re­warded years ago to coun­ter­con­di­tion paw­ing. That didn’t work. He touched my arm, then walked to his empty feed bucket and turned to me. He touched the flat bucket with his front hoof. Nope. He raised his head and stared over the top of the stall door at a bale of hay across the aisle, then moved his huge eyes from the hay to me and back again. Noth­ing worked---I praised and stroked him, but any­thing ed­i­ble would risk his life dur­ing anes­the­sia. At the risk of sound­ing hope­lessly an­thro­po­mor­phic, I swear the horse was dis­ap­pointed with my poor per­for­mance. Horses com­mu­ni­cate with us all the time, just not in the way hu­mans com­mu­ni­cate with each other. Watch for your horse’s guess­work---if he throws var­ied be­hav­iors at you in suc­ces­sion, he could be try­ing to fig­ure out which one you want. When he stum­bles on the right one, tell him! Let him know through gen­tle strokes or a re­turn to his stall that he has suc­ceeded. Give him an ed­i­ble treat only if he’s fig­ured out some­thing truly im­por­tant.

Ev­ery time you work with your horse, find some­thing to praise. If nec­es­sary, set a task that you know he will do, just so you can re­ward him. Be­cause your brain is bi­ased against ab­sence, try even harder to find some typ­i­cal mis­be­hav­ior that the horse has not done to­day. Re­ward him for not mak­ing the usual mis­take, within a few sec­onds of his in­ac­tion, of course. Watch for his silent ques­tions “Is this what you want?” and an­swer them. Soon you will have a horse who re­wards you with the ab­sence of mis­be­hav­ior all the time.

Think­ing in this way in­creases your re­ward op­por­tu­ni­ties. Sud­denly, the horse is be­ing taught how much he does well, what a good horse he is, how easy it is to be suc­cess­ful at meet­ing hu­man ex­pec­ta­tions.

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