Four types of attention!

Thomas Z. Ramsøy

June 10, 2020

In all customer touchpoints, attention is an absolute key! But what is attention really? While we might think of attention as a single thing, recent studies in cognitive neuroscience and psychology suggest that there are at least four types of attention.

Attention is one of the most important aspects of communication. After all, if your message is not attended, you have zero chance at communicating, engaging, or getting you message across.

But what is attention? We all have a folk-psychological understanding of what attention is. Perhaps this was best described by William James more than a century ago:

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

William James (1890) Principles of Psychology

But that was 1890, and although James had extremely valuable insights into the nature of attention, consciousness, and the human mind, the past decades of scientific studies have shown no less than four or more types of attention. This is the scientific foundation of the Neurons' Predict attention AI model.

This science now points to at least four types of attention: bottom-up, top-down, emotional, and cognitive. Let's take them in turn.

Bottom-up attention

The first type of attention is the automatic, stimulus-driven type of attention. Here, properties of what you are looking at will in themselves drive attention automatically. Features such as contrast, colors, edges, density, movement, and other things are automatic triggers of attention. Take a look at the examples below:

Four examples of direct, bottom-up drivers of visual attention

As you can see, these elements are known to produce a strong automatic attention. It's as if you cannot avoid looking at it!

Brain fact: Looking at the brain, bottom-up attention is driven by the sensory input, reaching your awareness through regions such as the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus, and then the primary sensory cortices.

Top-down attention

When reading this sentence, imagine that something fell to the floor beside you. You would most likely look away from the screen to see what was going on. The object making a sound as it crashed on the floor would be a bottom-up stimulus.

But what if you kept reading the sentence despite the sound? In this case, you would be involved in a different type of attention: top-down attention. So here, some examples of top-down attention would include:

  • concentrating on reading a book while there is noise around you
  • looking for a particular product in the store or online
  • intently listening to an audiobook

As you can see, top-down attention is all about your wilful mobilization of your attention. It's a fragile process, since so many things can distract you from your focus.

This is best shown when we compare eye-tracking data that are contrasting what people look at during the first couple of seconds, relative to the last couple of seconds (when images are present for 5 seconds):

Note that the brand only gets attention at the last 2 seconds.

Brand attention is strong for the first few seconds in this ad

While attention shifts from beginning to end, the brand is not seen

The images above clearly demonstrate differences in what constitutes bottom-up attention (typically the first second or so) and top-down attention (takes over 2 seconds to mobilize). Consider also that most ads rarely get more than 3 seconds, especially on phones and on other online media.

Brain fact: The brain basis for top-down attention mainly lies in the prefrontal and parietal cortex. Activity here can both boost and hinder activity in other parts of the brain, which is exactly what happens when you have decided to look for a particular product in the store.

But bottom-up and top-down are only two types of attentional drivers. Recent research also points more to emotional and cognitive factors.

Emotional attention

When something important happens around you, your attention is driven to it. Besides the previous example of an object crashing to the floor besides you, there are many different types of emotional drivers of attention, including:

  • Sudden events -- an unexpected sound, or even a word in a sentence, can trigger more attention
  • Novelty effects -- when something is novel, it tends to "pop-out"
  • Unpredictability -- stimuli that are more unpredictable, tend to drive more attention (and often decrease liking)
  • Preference -- we tend to notice things that we have a strong liking or disliking of more than elements that we are more neutral towards
  • Beauty effect -- we tend to pay more attention to beauty, symmetry, and other similar elements

Facial beauty and symmetry tends to produce a lot of visual attention, especially when facing and looking at the camera.

Brain fact: The brain basis of emotional attention lies in the way that we are wired. Regions such as the amygdala have more projections back to the primary visual brain, and can boost visual attention. At the same time, increased emotional responses also means stronger dilation of the pupils, which also increases the intake of visual information.

Cognitive attention

The fourth branch of attention drivers include cognitive factors. Cognition is a whole host of processes that include language processing, working memory, learning, attention, and much more. Here, by "cognition" we mean processes that are less related to emotional responses.

Some examples here include:

  • Familiarity -- we sometimes pay more attention to things that are familiar, and things that are recognized
  • Comprehension -- we tend to spend more time on things that are easy to comprehend
  • Text -- we tend to read text that is presented to us, and thereby spend more time with it
  • Cognitive load -- when cognitive demands are high, we often lose attention

We tend to spend more time looking at and reading text

Brain fact: Cognitive processes in the brain are scattered "all over", but some important parts include the temporal lobe, including the medial temporal lobe. This region is involved in recognition, comprehension, memory, and related functions. So cognition is very much about the temporal lobe, and to some extent the prefrontal cortex.

Four steps to boost attention

How can you boost attention? The answer is simple: you have at least four levers to pull.

So the question is: how can you do it? Let's take some examples:

  • Boosting automatic attention: you can make something attended more by ensuring that it is visually salient, and thereby can "pop out." Making things salient includes working with contrast, colors, movement, and other things, not to forget to reduce the complexity of your display -- less is more!
  • Motivate your top-down audience! To ensure that you engage top-down attention, ensure that they are willing to spend energy paying attention to your message and product. Strong brands have this effect, but good call to action ads can also do the trick. Here, engaging the audience is key!
  • Trigger emotions: If you can trigger emotional responses, you are more likely to be seen. However, emotional attention comes with a caveat: if you are using famous people or horrific images, people tend to look more at these and less at the brand, thereby losing the ability to connect with the brand.
  • Be cognizant: Use text but sparsely, play on recognizable elements, and reduce cognitive load (look at your Cognitive Demand score in the Predict metrics).

See how you can boost attention to your visual assets with a free demo of Predict.

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