Team colors are big part of following the action

Brain sees as one object players dressed the same

June 30, 2006|By CHRIS EMERY | CHRIS EMERY,SUN REPORTER

From the cover How do soccer fans keep track of the players as they sprint back and forth between the goal boxes during a World Cup match?

They look for the colored uniforms, of course.

As obvious as the answer seems, the question has mystified scientists since the early 1990s. That's when researchers discovered that most of us can only concentrate our attention on three objects at a time, a finding that raised questions about our ability to follow sporting events such as soccer, football and lacrosse - with up to two dozen players ranging the field.

Now a team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins University says it may have discovered what it is about colored uniforms that helps spectators and players make sense of sporting events.

Their findings suggest that same-color uniforms allow the mind to treat a soccer team's 11 on-field players as if they were a single entity, said Justin Halberda, an assistant professor of psychology who led the research team.

"It helps us watch the blue-shirted French players and - formerly - the white-shirted U.S. players," Halberda said. "Even though there are many players on sports teams, we can attend to them as if they were a single thing. Without that ability we would be stuck being able to attend to only three players at one time."

The group's discovery could someday find application in endeavors as varied as video game design, military strategy and education.

Although we are limited to focusing on three objects, or three groups of objects, our focus of attention shifts so quickly that we are unaware of the limit, Halberda said.

"If we weren't able to do it within a split second, it would feel very effortful to move around the world and use this information," he said.

To test human ability to pay attention to groups of colored objects, the Hopkins researchers asked volunteers to guess at the number of dots of a certain color that flashed on a computer screen. The dots on the screen were visible for only a split second during each trial, and their number varied from 1 to 35.

When the dots were all the same color, the volunteers were able to make a fairly accurate guess at their number. And, when two or three colors of dots were intermixed, most volunteers were still able to pick out dots of a pre-specified color and accurately guess their number.

But when the researchers presented the participants with four or more groups of colored dots, the challenge became too complex. Most participants' ability to enumerate the different groups declined significantly.

Halberda was surprised at the outcome.

"Previous work has shown that all of us only attend to about three objects at one time," he said. "This is the first time we have found a way to figure out how humans get around that limit."

The results suggest people can separate out and focus on three different sets of objects simultaneously, he said. In addition to explaining why teams wear the same color of uniforms, the three-group limit on attention meshes nicely with the three-object limit that scientists turned up in the '90s, Halberda said. It suggests that color is a cue the human mind uses to create sets - groups of objects that share one or more characteristics.

"Using color to split them into two sets allows you to pay attention," Halberda said.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, the task of assuring that the Terps' uniforms create a "set" and are sufficiently distinctive from those of opposing teams falls to Ronald Ohringer, the university's equipment manager.

Ohringer said he sometimes has to negotiate with other teams that wear similar uniforms - for example, North Carolina State.

"We both wear white helmets, and we both wear red and white as our primary colors," he said. "In some cases we will wear red jerseys and white pants, but if N.C. State is coming we might wear all red."

His goal in contrasting uniforms is to help fans and players keep track of the action. "When a quarterback is taking a quick glance down the field for a receiver, we want somebody who is going to stand out," he said.

While a quarterback only needs to keep track of two sets of players, and most of us max out at three, some study participants were able to pay attention to four or even five sets of colored dots.

Those subjects might excel as air traffic controllers or at other jobs that also involve processing large amounts of visual information, Halberda said.

Designers who use colors to designate groups might be more successful by taking our limitations into account, Halberda said. Among the applications: video games, classroom organization, stock market readouts and military computers used to track troop movements.

Halberda's team is trying to find out whether the mind uses other features, such as shape and size to create sets. "Research suggests we can do that if the difference is large enough," he said. "So those of us who are color blind are not hopeless."

UM's Ohringer said marketing strategy and tradition most often determine a team's uniform colors. "Being a state school, our colors are the color of the state flag," he said. "But we also want to attract high school students to the University of Maryland."

Halberda notes that most teams wear bright, distinctive colors that are easy for fans to use as cues for set-building. "It is interesting that history and fanaticism have conspired to choose the right color for the human visual system," Halberda said.

The findings of the Hopkins study are slated for publication this summer in the journal Psychological Science.

Halberda plans to continue teasing out how the mind groups objects into sets. He is collaborating with a linguist to explore whether the three-group limit is reflected in language.

"The relationship between an individual and a set is the foundation of all our mathematical concepts," he said. "Language makes use of different mathematical concepts."

chris.emery@baltsun.com

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