The Science of Attention

One area of research that has always intrigued me is the limits on human cognition and reason.

As communication consultants, it’s easy to convince ourselves that voters (or consumers) will “get” what we’re trying to say because we ourselves live our campaigns and their issues (or products) in such depth.

But the research into human decision-making shows us how wrong this assumption often is.

Last week an article piqued my interest and brought me back to some old questions about another cognitive topic—attention.

We know that the average voter doesn’t pay rapt attention to ads and mail in the way we would like.  But this article says something deeper about the way, as a researcher, I design surveys and the way we should all think about messaging.

The article is another in a long line of studies illustrating that once people engage their attention in even a mildly complex task, they can miss what would otherwise be startling events occurring around them.

The same type of research suggests that the idea of “multi-tasking” is not a cognitive reality.

Examples of these kinds of studies are numerous, but some key (and easily accessible) ones include:

  • The famous experiment in which nearly half of observers asked to count basketball passes in a video do not notice a person in a gorilla costume walking through the scene.
  • More than half of volunteers following a runner down a path in daylight failed to notice a staged fight near the path if they were asked to keep track of specific behaviors by the runner they were following.
  • Only one-in 40 people can concentrate on a cell-phone conversation and simultaneously safely operate a car.

In writing surveys, the question of attention and cognitive task-switching has long been important to us.  That’s why we use connecting language and “sign-posting” to tell respondents when we’ll be asking a different type of question or changing the response options.

But these findings about attention when focused on a task also have important implications for political messaging:

  • They’re the reason that “kitchen sink” ads or mail pieces typically don’t work.
    • By throwing a lot of issues and messages at a voter one after another, we’re almost ensuring that voters will miss the message.
      • The research suggests that focusing on one message, or a few messages that appeal to the same idea and mental process, will be more effective than trying to jam multiple issues or messages into one ad or mailer.
      • Contrast ads or mailers ask voters to switch processes mid-stream and thus require careful attention to sign-posting the change.
        • We know contrast is valuable because it frames the voters’ decision for them, but this attention research suggests that contrast which uses visual and soundtrack differences to highlight the shift in focus will be more effective than ads which blur the line between the two parts of the message.