Don't look back in anger: Why you can't find that missing pen

A messy drawer full of stationery (Getty)
Spend more time looking in the mess, say scientists (Getty)

Missing items are always found in the last place you look, but wouldn't it be great if that was also the first?

Scientists in the UK think they've figured out how to save us all a little time.

"Imagine that you are searching for a red pen, and you know it could be on either of two desks," researchers from the University of Aberdeen and Essex write in a newly published study.

"The top of one desk is clean, while the other desk is cluttered with papers, other pens, books and coffee cups. What is the most effective way to find the red pen?"

Common sense suggests you'd take a quick look at the first desk before digging into the second - but that's not what people do.

Participants in an experiment were asked to find a slanted line on a screen, one side of which was relatively empty, the other full of distractions.

Instead of taking a quick glance at the empty side before focusing their efforts on the messy side, almost every participant wasted valuable time looking around - on average, at seven different spots on the empty side - before moving on to the messy side.

If the target was indeed on the empty side, participants found it with almost 100 percent accuracy in a single glance.

"Eye movements are not driven preferentially to locations that produce the most information," the researchers say, showing your hunt for that missing pen "may be more random and less efficient" than you realise.

The lesson, they say, is if something's not where you expect it to be, don't waste time double- or triple-checking, let alone looking seven times.

Their study, 'Human visual search is far from ideal', has been published in journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.