The cognitive demand of digital media

Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy

December 12, 2019

After testing thousands of participants across the globe, we can see a clear pattern emerging: cognitive demand on digital devices is at least 10% higher than for non-digital devices. It even happens before you turn on your phone! Here, we discuss the implications for advertising on social media, and some pointers for dos and don’ts.

The bandwidth problem

Try to remember the following string of words: apple -- horse -- pencil -- flower -- car -- monkey -- tomato -- tree. Now, try to look away from the screen, count to ten and then try to recall as many of these words as you can. Usually, this string of words is at the limit of how many single items you can keep in your mind at any one time. The ability to keep information in mind for a few seconds is what's called working memory. Previously, it was called short-term memory, but since we know that the information that is kept in mind like this can also play an active role in shaping your mind and action, it was preferred to call it working memory.

We have tested thousands of participants, and have noticed a recurring pattern...

At Neurons, we have now tested several thousands of participants over the past year. A single study is around 120 participants, sometimes less and sometimes more. But across this vast and growing database of behaviors across different conditions, we have made an astounding observation: higher cognitive load leads to a lower tolerance for information. When a person's cognitive load goes up, they are less likely to be willing to spend time with whatever information they're presented with. Cognitive load is related to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), as well as other regions of the brain, such as areas in the parietal lobe and sometimes the temporal lobe. This can be seen in the figure below:

A brain with the prefrontal cortex highlighted.
The dIPFC (pale yellow circles) is engaged during working memory and it connects to other regions, such as the parietal lobe, temporal lobe, as well as deeper structures such as the hippocampus and amygdala. This gives the region a strong top-down influence over processing in other brain regions.

We have also detected a threshold that we call cognitive overload. When people are provided with too much information or too complex information, they show a range of responses, including:

  • loss of attention
  • lower comprehension
  • lower memory for the information
  • emotions turn less positive or even negative
  • subjective enjoyment goes down
  • negative halo over to the brand associated with the overload

As you can already guess, cognitive overload is not where you want to put your customers!

The case of digital overload

Since the very beginning of our testing in 2013, and even before through our pre-Neurons testing at the Copenhagen Business School and Copenhagen University Hospital, we have seen that digital devices increase cognitive load. The phone is particularly dominant here: even when you just hand a phone to a participant, and before it is turned on, we see that cognitive load increases by around 10%. It does not even have to be their own phone!

Cognitive overload will kill your ad!

When testing ads, we have seen the same thing: ads presented on phones such as social media show a higher cognitive load than when the ads are presented on other platforms such as TV or print. But this is not due to the ads themselves, it's more a general feature of how we process information on these different channels. Reading a text is easier in a book and hardest on a phone. Not because it's impossible on a phone, but our comprehension, enjoyment, and memory of the text is simply lower on the phone!

Chart showing cognitive load.
Cognitive demand increases from physical media (dark purple) to TV (light purple), and even more drastically to digital media such as the phone (yellow). Bars represent the normalized cognitive load score. The purple line indicates how a score of around 75 is indicative of information overload.

How can this be? We speculate that this effect is due to the nature of how we have set up our phones -- or rather, how we have allowed the phones to be preset for us. Phones today, unless we actively change the settings, are distraction devices. They ring or buzz every time there is a single message, app notification, or other "newsworthy" event. The result is that our adaptive brain learns that the phone is likely to disturb us, so it starts setting aside mental resources to deal with it -- even when the phone has not given any note. Have you ever heard or felt your phone in your pocket, and then discovered that the phone had neither given off any sound/buzz or was even in your pocket? These "phantom phones" are clear indicators that phones are mental energy hogs!

Have you ever heard about "phantom phones?"

The problem for advertising on phones is therefore as follows:

  • cognitive resources are less available for reading and comprehension.
  • attention drops faster to the ad, leading to shorter viewing times.
  • overload easily leads to a negative response to the ad.
  • negative responses halo over to the brand.

We therefore often see ads failing on phones because they don't take this into account. A few examples of how ads fail include:

  • metaphorical ads that assume that viewers have the time, interest and resources to "connect the dots" -- they don't.
  • long narratives with a punchline that assume that the narrative is engaging -- it isn't.
  • brand-building ads that put the brand at the end of a story-telling narrative -- viewers drop out long before.

So what can be done to boost ads correctly on phones?

How to make engaging ads for phones?

Based on the above, it should be pretty obvious to identify ways that ads should be made to work on phones. To make it very explicit, here is a shortlist:

  • attention is short-lived: focus on shorter ads!
  • information tolerance is low: cut down on the information!
  • bounce rate is high: get to the ad point fast!

Still, some ads can succeed in engaging viewers for a long, engaging time on phones. These ads typically fulfill at least one of the following criteria:

  • low on information
  • products are directly rewarding (e.g., food)
  • they use a first-person perspective, leading to viewer mirroring and recognition
  • the storyline is simple
  • the message is simple
  • there is no use of analogies, metaphors, or complex language

As consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing is gaining even more momentum in commercial research, we can expect that these and similar learning points will blossom. We can't wait to contribute with more of our insights!

You can test and optimize the cognitive load of your ads with Predict.

The cognitive demand of digital media

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