How many types of attention are there? Part 2

Thomas Z. Ramsøy

February 2, 2022

You're reading part two of "How many types of attention are there?". If you haven't read part one yet, read it here. In this article, you'll learn about divided and sustained attention, how to measure attention, four steps to boost attention, and more!

Divided attention or sustained attention?

One pertinent issue is whether we are able to sustain attention, or whether we are dividing attention between many things. Let’s go back to the earlier example of reading this text and the different distractors. Sometimes you will be able to keep your focus despite the distractions around you, while other times you may be more prone to be distracted. 

In this sense, sustained attention is the process in which you are able to maintain attention to the same elements. Several things can drive this process, including:

  • Top-down control: your ability to withstand impulses to look away and keep your focus.
  • Emotional intensity: the more intense a distraction is, the less you will be able to maintain attention.
  • Cognitive demand: when something is very demanding to process, we are more likely to lose attention, as your mental energy gets depleted faster.
  • Individual differences: on all of the above, there are trait differences between people, where some are better at sustained attention, while others are less efficient.

Divided attention is the term for when there is a need for us to distribute your attention among two or more different tasks or processes. One example could be working from home and having to focus on not only work, but also what's going on at home around you (e.g. your children, pets, partner, or other distractors).

Often, we refer to this as “multitasking”, and there is a popular notion that some people are better at multitasking than others. However, this can be better seen as divided attention and task switching. We are rarely able to hold multiple tasks at once, but we can be proficient at switching between tasks.

One critical type of attention for divided attention is the top-down form. If your top-down muscles are not strong, you are much less likely to be able to switch between tasks. In addition, the efficiency for each of the processes goes down if your top-down skills are lower.

This was clearly shown in a study from Stanford more than a decade ago. Here, the researchers tested people with different degrees of switching between media devices (TV, phone, radio, etc.) on formal tests of concentration, task switching, and learning. The results were contrary to the popular belief that media multitaskers would be good at task switching. Instead, higher levels of media multitasking was associated with lower performance on concentration, task switching, and learning was poorer.

How do you measure attention?

In general, there are three ways we can measure attention: asking people, eye-tracking and brain responses. Let’s take them in turn.

The easiest way to measure attention is to simply ask people: what are you thinking about? What do you see in this picture? Where is the brand? This may provide you with some indication of what people are seeing and what they miss. But self reporting is also a method with limitations. For example, what if we asked you to report what you paid attention to during a movie, you would not only find the task difficult to do (imagine saying “now I see a person walking down a street, now I see a crowd of people” and so on). It would also change your experience of the movie!

To better measure what people are looking at without disturbing them, we can use eye-tracking. Using infrared cameras to track the movement of the pupils, an eye-tracking device can either be put in front of a person and face the person (stationary eye-tracker) or it can be mounted on the person, typically as glasses (mobile eye-tracking). The eye-tracker samples the eyes’ position every few milliseconds, and can be held up against what the person is facing. This allows you to quantify things that we typically don’t even notice ourselves, such as:

  • How long do we look at a specific item 
  • How much time it takes from the moment something enters our field of view to when we look at it
  • How many times we are looking back and forth at the item

This type of quantification allows us to get a deep understanding of visual attention, and it has become one of the must-have methods for customer researchers. 

Finally, we have brain scanning as a way to measure attention. We’re not yet in a position where we can see exactly what a person attends or not. For this, it's much easier to use a combination of eye-tracking and brain scanning. Instead, we can use brain scanning to measure and understand the state of mind a person is in: is the person in a high-alert state or drowsy? We can also compare attention states when people are looking at different ads, products, websites, and more, and thereby better understand their level of engagement. As such, brain scanning can be used to understand attentional engagement, but it works best when combined with eye-tracking.

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).

Can we predict attention?

But wait, there’s more! In later years, two main revolutions have married to create powerful new tools: the neuroscience revolution and the AI revolution. What this means is that it is now possible to create AI models that can predict where people will look.

By mining the industry’s largest consumer neuroscience database, Neurons has been able to create predictive AI models. Here, using Predict, it is possible to upload an image or a video, and get a heat map that predicts where customers are most likely to look. The analysis takes only a few seconds (image) to a few minutes (video). The model is 92% accurate compared to eye-tracking, and only gets better as we add data.

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

How many types of attention are there? Part 2

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