Similarity relations in visual search predict rapid visual categorization
How do we perform rapid visual categorization?It is widely thought that categorization involves evaluating the similarity of an object to other category items, but the underlying features and similarity relations remain unknown. Here, we hypothesized that categorization performance is based on perceived similarity relations between items within and outside the category. To this end, we measured the categorization performance of human subjects on three diverse visual categories (animals, vehicles, and tools) and across three hierarchical levels (superordinate, basic, and subordinate levels among animals). For the same subjects, we measured their perceived pair-wise similarities between objects using a visual search task. Regardless of category and hierarchical level, we found that the time taken to categorize an object could be predicted using its similarity to members within and outside its category. We were able to account for several classic categorization phenomena, such as (a) the longer times required to reject category membership; (b) the longer times to categorize atypical objects; and (c) differences in performance across tasks and across hierarchical levels. These categorization times were also accounted for by a model that extracts coarse structure from an image. The striking agreement observed between categorization and visual search suggests that these two disparate tasks depend on a shared coarse object representation.