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A skill called “O”: People vary a lot in how well they recognize, match, or categorize the things they see

Overview: A newly identified skill, called “O”, is a common skill that can help you succeed at tasks that require perceptual decisions.

Source: The conversation

Like snowflakes, no two people are exactly alike. You’re probably used to the idea that people differ significantly in personality and cognitive abilities — skills like problem solving or remembering information.

In contrast, there is a widespread intuition that people differ much less in their ability to recognize, match, or categorize objects. Many daily tasks, hobbies, and even critical jobs — such as interpreting satellite images, comparing fingerprints, or diagnosing medical conditions — depend on these perceptual skills.

The common expectation is that smart and motivated people who receive the right training should eventually be able to excel in professions that require hundreds of perceptual decisions every day.

We to be psychologists who measure how people relate to challenging perceptual tasks. Our research has shown that this intuition that everyone has the same capacity for perceptual skills is not supported by the evidence.

It’s no problem if you choose to do bird watching every weekend without ever getting very good at it – you can still get some fresh air and have fun. But when perceptual decisions affect safety, health, or legal outcomes, there’s reason to look for people who can deliver the best possible performance. Our research suggests that some people are simply better than others at learning to discern things perceptually, no matter what the objects are.

A general ability to recognize things

Classical psychological studies in the early 20th century found that performance on a range of cognitive tasks designed to test memory, math, and verbal skills was correlated. In real life, this means that someone who is good at sudoku is probably also good at remembering their shopping list. This finding led to the modern notion of general intelligence, which describes a collection of faculties that together predict a wide range of outcomes, from income until health and longevity

In a similar way, our studies show that those who use the best at bird recognition can also excel at aircraft identificationand they may also be the best at learning to recognize tumors in chest x-rays† In another study, the same power predicted better performance in reading music notation or recognize images of prepared food

Of course people differ in their experience with birds or medical images. The more familiar you are with it, the you are better at recognizing it† Experience and training play an important role in how people make decisions based on visual information. But does everyone start on the same footing when they start training?

Does everyone start with the first?

We were interested in whether everyone starts out with roughly the same baseline of perceptual talent. To explore this question, we measured people’s abilities with artificial objects they had never seen before, to avoid any benefit due to different levels of experience.

In one big study, we assessed 246 people for 13 hours each and tested them on various tasks with six categories of computer-generated artificial objects. We asked people to remember and recognize objects, to match them or to make judgments about some parts of them.

Our results for tasks like these repeatedly show that people differ as much in perceptual skills as they do in cognitive skills. Using statistical methods historically applied to intelligence and personality tests, we found that more than 89% of the differences between people in their performance on these different tasks and categories could be explained by an overall ability. We named this ability “o” for object recognition and in honor of the “g” factor, which represents comparable statistical evidence for general intelligence.

In follow-up studieswe have found that o applies to artificial and real objects in the same way, and that people with high o are better at calculating summary statistics for groups of objects (such as estimating the “average” of different objects) and also better at recognize objects by touch† You can compare yourself to others in this short demo

o is a definite ability

Since it’s so general, is o just another name for general intelligence? We don’t think so.

In one study, we found that: neither IQ nor SAT scores predict recognition of new objects. in other work, we found that o was different from g, but also from the personality trait conscientiousness. This means that book savvy may not be enough to excel in domains that rely heavily on perceptual skills.

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This shows an empty board

We tested this idea by measuring how good people with or without expertise in radiology were at detecting lung nodules in chest X-rays. Those with the highest o were better at this task, even after controlling for intelligence and radiology experience.

This shows several images in the same category
Examples of tasks that connect to o, from top left: 1) Are these two objects identical despite the change in point of view? 2) Which lung has a tumor? 3) Which of these dishes is the odd one out? 4) Which option is the average of the four robots on the right? Answers: 1) no 2) left 3) third 4) fourth. Isabel Gauthier, CC BY-ND

This finding demonstrates the added value of measuring o. Even when medical students are selected to be smart and receive training, it may not guarantee the highest levels of achievement in specializations that rely on perceptual skills.

A lot of doors open up when you show you’re cognitively talented, which only seems fair. But it’s only fair to the extent that general intelligence is the best way—or even a sufficient way—to predict success in a particular domain. Many have warned that intelligence tests can lead to inequalities in taking or placing a job, linked to race, gender or socioeconomic status.

Over the years, many thinkers have downplayed innate talents to emphasize environmental influences. They argued that success can be shaped by years of intentional practiceprograms to change you attitudes about learningor even hours of video game play

But the evidence for the influence of innate talents remains strong, and denying or overpromising the effectiveness of environmental factors can sometimes be harmful† People can waste time and resources that could be better invested, and risk becoming stigmatized if their efforts fail due to factors beyond their control.

One answer to this problem is to learn about talents beyond intelligence and then make better use of them. Classical notions of intelligence may be just one of many factors that determine overall ability. A greater focus on perceptual abilities, especially those that are general, could help reduce inequality. For example, while differences in experience can lead to gender differences in the recognition of objects in some well-known categorieswe found no such differences in the overall ability of

About this neuroscience research news

Author: Isabel Gauthier and Jason Chow
Source: The conversation
Contact: Isabel Gauthier and Jason Chow – The Conversation
Image: The image is attributed to Isabel Gauthier

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