People looking for hidden objects prefer to search nearby, even though the objects are most likely kept in harder-to-reach places, a new study suggests.

The finding may lead to more realistic environments for gamers and may also help law enforcement develop better search equipment.

Previous research into hiding and searching strategies had been conducted using animals and children, but little is known about the strategies employed by adults, said Marcia Spetch, an experimental psychologist at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study.  

To better understand people’s hiding and seeking behavior, the subjects were divided into two groups and instructed to both hide and seek objects in either a physical room or a virtual-reality setting that resembled the real room's dimensions.

In the virtual room, researchers found that on average subjects who were asked to locate hidden objects preferred to poke around in spots close to their immediate vicinity. But when trying to hide objects, they ventured out farther (about 5 feet more) from their starting point to make the objects harder to find.

“Seekers tend to rely on a more systematic approach to finding objects,“ Spetch told LiveScience. “The danger in going further out to look is it makes it difficult to keep track of where they already searched.”  

But when the roles were reversed, "people [who] had already hidden objects tended to move farther away from the starting place consistent with where people normally hide objects," Spetch said. "It was as though the hiding primed them into what kinds of locations things might be hidden in."

The study’s results may help game developers create computer-generated characters with more human-like characteristics, which should level the playing field and make the game more fun for players.

"It's very easy for a computer-controlled 'bot to know exactly where you've hidden some things, or to see through walls. All these extra-human abilities are easily implemented, but they appear as cheating to the player," said Vadim Bulitko, a computer scientist at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study. "I think players expect human-like characters in the game to behave like humans. And if somebody appears like a human in a game, they should also have the same sort of abilities as the human player."

Bulitko said the information can also be implemented in computer-enhanced eyewear, similar to the technology used in military circles. Such search-enhancing goggles can analyze a room and reveal the possible places where an object might be hidden.

"A computer can recognize spots in a room, and maybe it can make some suggestions like 'OK, check under that plank on the floor,'" he said.

The study, announced this week, was published in the May issue of the journal Learning and Motivation.