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How to Guide Attention in a World Full of Distractions

By Stefan van der Stigchel

Everyone who guides a consumer's attention, like website designers, teachers, traffic engineers and advertising agents, could be given the title of ‘attention architect’. They know that simply presenting a message is not enough. An attention architect needs to be able to guide one’s attention to get the message across. This means that they have to fight for the attention of the consumer.

Whoever can control a consumer’s attention has the power to allow information to reach the consumer or, conversely, to ensure that he or she does not receive that information at all. The true challenge for attention architects lies in knowing what's currently relevant for the customer. This is not trivial, as what is relevant for a consumer can vary from moment to moment. By focusing on the visual domain, I will outline what attention is and how attention can be guided.

Every day, we are bombarded with sensory information. When it comes to the transfer of information, the visual system is perhaps our most important sensory tool. Visual attention is the mechanism we use to make a selection from all of the visual information available to us and then process only that information. All the information that our attention is not focused on is largely filtered out. Selection ensures that the brain is not overloaded by having to process all the information available to us simultaneously. You could compare attention to the neck of a bottle when you are pouring the contents: only a certain amount of liquid can pass at any given moment. Our brain requires the use of selection simply because we are unable to perform multiple tasks, process all the visual information around us, or think every single thought we could possibly think, all at the same time.

So, whenever you want to convey a message, you have to deal with the fact that the person receiving the message only has conscious access to information on which their attention is focused. But how do we guide that attention? A distinction can be made between bottom-up and top- down attention. Whereas the bottom-up guidance of our attention is determined by the information in our visual world, top-down guidance of attention refers to our own goals or intentions. Although bottom-up and top-down guidance are not necessarily conflicting, in many situations there is competition between both types of influences.

Bottom-up attention

When attention is captured by a unique object in the environment, this object results in a 'pop-out effect'. This is the reason why a red Santa Claus is so easy to find in a group of green helpers. It seems that our brain is programmed to shift our attention instantly to information that deviates from what we expect to see in the world around us. Advertisers can make good use of this fact by displaying anomalous information, such as a moving red text on advertising hoardings during football matches played on green grass. Viewers simply cannot escape  the presence of anomalous information, not even when they know in advance that a distracting object will be presented or even when they know which object will be doing the distracting. Unexpected information is so strong that it will always draw attention. The drawing of attention to a pop-out object is an automatic process and one over which we have no control. Making something appear is a good way of capturing a person's attention. Nothing activates our attention reflex more strongly than a new object. It is easy to understand why we evolved this way. Objects that appear abruptly can represent possible danger. The extent to which an object automatically draws your attention is partly determined by the surrounding environment. It is by no means a given, therefore, that an object with a bright color will automatically grab your attention. A brightly colored poster is surely a good way of attracting attention, but not when there are multiple bright posters and flashing screens fighting for attention too. An effective advertisement is one that is adapted to suit its environment.

Faces also automatically capture our bottom-up attention. If we combine this information with the knowledge that the attention of viewers always follows the direction in which a face is looking, then it can be very easy to direct their attention. If, for example, you want to draw a consumer's attention to a particular brand's logo, you can position a face so that it is looking in the direction of the logo. This will greatly increase the chances of someone shifting their attention to that spot. However, it can also have a negative effect. In many TV programs, such as the evening news for example, faces are often shown in the background. They may attract the attention of the viewer, with the result that they may lose focus on the newsreader. And if the face in the background is looking away, it can lead to even more interference. It is therefore very important to choose the right moment to show a face in the background, as well as ensuring that the face is looking in the desired direction.

Another interesting category that can result in a pop-out is information that is related to the current goal of the participant. Such an effect therefore differs between persons and even within persons, in contrast to the effect of pop-out stimuli. For instance, pictures of food are known to automatically attract the attention, but only when a person is hungry. We all know how difficult it is to concentrate on other things when you are hungry. This is not only because internally you are focused on your hunger, but also because you will begin inspecting your surroundings in search of food. Your visual system is set up to monitor the world around you within the framework of what you yourself regard as interesting - whether that is food when you are feeling hungry or spiders when you suffer from arachnophobia. When information is presented that is consistent with your current goals, this information will automatically capture attention.

We have recently discovered that it is the content of our working memory that determines how much priority is given to an object. We asked a number of test subjects to remember a color. With this color safely stored in their memory, we then presented an image to one of the eyes, which was suppressed due to the presence of a strong visual mask in the other eye, a method called breaking continuous flash suppression. When the color of this image was the same as the color the test subjects had stored in their working memory, the time it took for observers to report the color was a lot shorter than when the color was different. It appears that our brain is constantly busy prioritizing relevant information. Just think of a party where you can’t get the person in the red shirt out of your mind. In that case, not only is your attention captured by all the red clothing you see, every other scrap of red information will also permeate your visual consciousness much quicker. The lesson is therefore that you can automatically grab someone's attention by presenting information such that it is congruent with what is currently relevant for the observer.

Top-down attention

We are not simply slaves to the external world. We can also voluntarily shift our attention, based on our current goals and intentions. By 'voluntarily' I mean that we are free to choose how and when we move our attention. Our visual world is full of regularities which we use when surveying our surroundings: knives are usually kept in the cutlery drawer, and that's why you are more inclined to look there than in the fridge when you need a knife. Context helps us to understand our complex visual world. So when we are driving, we have certain expectations and shift our attention accordingly. This is why it is unwise for road designers to display a billboard at a spot where drivers would normally expect to see a traffic sign.

Our attention is guided by our learned experiences. Websites are often prone to banner blindness: users do not look at the ads despite all the flashing and flickering. In fact, all that flashing makes us better at suppressing a shift of attention towards the ad. Measurements of the eye movements of people visiting online news sites have shown that users make significantly more eye movements towards advertisements that are placed between news items than those located on the side bar. How a person experiences the visual world is influenced by what he or she has seen and done in the past.


All around us, information competes for our attention, and it is those attention architects who know the most about how our attention works who tend to come out on top. The true challenge for attention architects lies in knowing what's currently relevant for the consumer. This requires a thorough understanding of the current goals and intentions of the consumer.


About the author: Stefan van der Stigchel is an associate professor at Utrecht University and head of the research group Attentionlab. Stefan is a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. This article is based on a popular science book that will be published in 2018 by MIT Press ('Attention: Finding Your Way in a World Full of Distraction').

This was originally published in Insights Magazine, the quarterly publication on neuromarketing, especially for NMSBA members. Interested in joining? Check the options.