Author: Ian MacCorquodale

You are paying attention, aren't you?

You’re paying attention, aren’t you?

At this moment, you are not as fully focused as you might think you are. It doesn’t even matter what it is you are doing, your attention is always somewhere else. Whether you are reading modern poetry or making an omelette, you are not, not ever, doing so 100% focused.


Attention is limited, and focusing can cause us to be unaware of other stimuli around us. Let’s say you are concentrating on learning a new riff on your guitar; you are not noticing the feeling of your shoes on your feet. Neither are you hearing the buzzing noises coming from the streets outside. As we’ve previously learned you basics about the brain, lets put the focus on attention with this one.

At this moment, you are not as fully focused as you might think you are. Click To Tweet

New research published in Current Biology has revealed that our attention performs something of an automatic, constant background scan to free up neurons in case they might be needed, enabling us to pay attention when needed.

That is why we can react to sudden changes in our environments, so when somebody yells “BALL!” in your direction, you can adapt to this new incoming, potential, action and attempt to catch it.

It is probably the reason all of us respond when someone you were previously not paying attention to says your name, and immediately you are shifting your attention towards the conversation. Something known as the cocktail party effect.

Feel the rhythm

Classic studies of attention all assumed that its neural effects were continuous over time. However, according to researchers from Princeton University, UC Berkeley, University of Oslo and Stanford University, our attention pulses in and out of focus roughly every 250 milliseconds. Their findings support the notion that the functional architecture of top-down attention is rhythmic.

According to researchers our attention pulses in and out of focus roughly every 250 milliseconds. Click To Tweet

Rhythms are essential in brain functioning. Not only during sleep but also during a search task. When you are looking for somebody in a crowd your eyes scan a scene and your brainwaves take on a specific rhythm.

We know for some time that our brains fill in the blanks to create our version of the world. Our senses are overwhelmed by all the information around us. Because our brains could never process everything, it came up with some handy shortcuts and tricks to keep us focused on what the brain thinks is most important. For example, the area in our eyes where the nerve leave the eyeball is unable to process visual input. We call this area the blind spot because of it. Instead of continually seeing a black hole, our brain fills in the blanks.

It’s all an illusion

A subjective experience of the world around us is, therefore, an illusion. Our perception is not a continuous influx of information; instead, we constantly filter information. Much information. There are numerous clips you can find online that will trick you every time. Just look for change-blindness experiments and prepare to be amazed. Moreover, to feel a bit stupid.

Attention to a visual illusion and the fMRI results

However, don’t feel bad for too long! Our brains work this way for a good reason. We do not see only with our eyes, but with our mind too. We also tend to “see” things that are not there. Similar to visual illusions.

Using a fMRI scanner, researchers at Radboud University discovered that the triangle you see in the left picture – although non-existent – activates the primary visual cortex. The area in the brain that processes input from the eyes first. Which shows that we “see” what is not there.

Don’t feel bad

Dr Schmid from Newcastle University says: “We believe the rhythmic architecture shows that we have limited cognitive resources so we can’t be paying attention with all our available resources, all the time. This regular background scan ensures that our brains are not overloaded.”

We focus in bursts, and between those bursts we have these periods of distractibility, that’s when the brain seems to check the rest of the environment to see if there’s something important going on.

We don’t, of course, notice these jumps in perception. To us, it appears as if we’re giving our undivided attention to whatever it is we’re doing. Just like with our blind spot, our brains fill in the information gaps, turning all the separate pieces of information into one coherent piece.

We need distractions

Evolution can explain this one by stressing the need of these pulses and to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Even when you are focusing on catching a salmon with your bare hands you need to be able to react to the grizzly bear behind you.

The teams behind both studies found nearly identical attention patterns in humans and macaques, suggesting that the trait has been preserved because it provides such an important evolutionary advantage.

Attention appears to be a distributed rhythmic process, and not continuous over time. That is a brand new way to think about attention and offers new insights. Not overloading our brains is an important function of human cognition. Our brain has evolved over time into a highly effective energy conserving machine. We have developed automatic shortcuts that enable us to make decisions faster and with as little energy as needed. But this comes at a price. Sometimes these shortcuts result in flaws called cognitive biases. Want to know more about them or neuromarketing in general?


Ian C. Fiebelkorn, Mark A. Pinsk, Sabine Kastner. A Dynamic Interplay within the Frontoparietal Network Underlies Rhythmic Spatial Attention. Neuron, 2018; 99 (4): 842 doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.07.038

Randolph F. Helfrich, Ian C. Fiebelkorn, Sara M. Szczepanski, Jack J. Lin, Josef Parvizi, Robert T. Knight, Sabine Kastner. Neural Mechanisms of Sustained Attention Are Rhythmic. Neuron, 2018; 99 (4): 854 doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.07.032

Kok et al.: “Shape perception simultaneously up- and down-regulates neural activity in the primary visual cortex”, Current Biology, July issue 2014

Price pain: 5 lessons learned from a sushi bar

Price pain: 5 lessons learned from a sushi bar

Every time we make a purchase, we experience a sense of pain. Two scientists by the names of Prelec & Loewenstein (1998) referred to this price pain as the “pain of paying”. Businesses should do what they can to keep this pain of paying at bay as much as possible. By selling products in such a way the consumer can see the price increase with every purchase is the worst possible thing you can do because it causes the most pain of paying. Don’t think of it as physical pain, but as the activation of brain areas associated with physical pain resulting in a negative experience.

Every time we make a purchase, we experience a sense of pain. Click To Tweet


Have you ever found yourself deliberately ignoring the ever-running meter in a taxi? In regular taxis, the negative experience of payment is very high. You can see the price on the meter go up with every turn you take. So you know how much every minute is costing you, and every added euro brings an increasingly painful sensation. Please look away.

Uber revolutionised the payment system for taxis by eliminating the awful visual meter. No physical payments needed because you pay with your credit card and you know the price beforehand. Everything happens automatically. Which results in a decreased pain of paying. Choosing to utilise credit card processing is one of the tactics that help reduce the pain of paying. Paying with a card makes you feel like you’re not spending money when you purchase something. The message to those concerned is obvious: try to avoid multiple individual “pain-moments” in the buying process.

So why would anybody choose to use one price for one single item on sale? Supermarkets have no choice of course. We don’t blame them. However, restaurants do have that choice. They can set prices for menus and combine dishes and courses into one single price and thus reduce price pain. So why do so many sushi restaurants sell their sushi pieced together in small portions? A visit to a fantastic local sushi shop was the inspiration for this article. It will focus on how you can take the price pain out of sushi.

Taking the pain out of sushi

The problem with sushi, assuming you like sushi in the first place, is that it hurts your brain to buy it.

Our brains don’t like pain. It tries to avoid it at all costs. Our minds are lazy. They love fluency and ease. Simple, and fast. It loathes losses.

According to our brain, it is better not to lose €10, than it is to find €10. We call this phenomenon “loss aversion”. Another aspect at play is processing fluency. Processing fluency means the faster and more easily our brain can process information, the more positively we evaluate this information.

With the help of these and other psychological principles, the following set of tips will reduce the pain of pricing.

Reducing price pain

Brains are even willing to pay more, to avoid price pain. The pain of paying is very easily triggered. Just seeing the euro sign can remind the brain of the pain, and cause people to spend less. So first of all, think about ways to get rid of your pricing symbols! A price of 99 is perceived as cheaper than €79.

Brains are willing to pay more, to avoid price pain. Click To Tweet

Then, think about getting rid of your pricing and numbers altogether. Some restaurant use colours in their menus corresponding to prices. This way your brain won’t be triggered to experience the pain of pricing. Other restaurants use coloured plates to apply the same principle and stop customers from continually being confronted with the prices. All you need to do here is collect the small plates you picked and pay everything afterwards. Tapas bars in Spain use different coloured toothpicks to do the same. You can get creative with these colouring methods!

Another way to try to eliminate price pain is by implementing an all-you-can-eat system. No more individual price points issues, and this also shows customers that the pain of paying is over. However, if you are still thinking about using prices, setting the right amount can be done by taking considering the following methods.

One Cent

By reducing the left digit by one (called Charm pricing) prices that end in 9 or 9,9 increase sales. It is more effective to change the price from €5 to €4.99 than to adjust the amount from €5.20 to €5.19. How come? Our brain encodes numbers so fast that the decision process starts as soon as our eyes encounter the first digit of the price. Since “4” is less than “5”, this method makes the entire cost seem less expensive, while the difference is only 1 cent.

Positioning the price

Placing the price on the left side of the page will make it seem smaller in magnitude. Does this sound too simple? Think about it. We are used to seeing low numbers on the left side. Imagine a ruler on your screen, low numbers are on the left, right? By placing the numbers on the left, you will automatically trigger a mental conceptualisation of smaller prices in the brain.

Set an anchor

List your most expensive item at the top of the menu. That way all the prices below the first one will seem cheaper. Because people hold the tendency to rely too heavily – or “anchor” – on one trait or piece of information when making decisions. The following lower priced items will appear to be of better value. You could even try to put bluefish tuna on top (still holds the record for the most expensive seafood of all time) to set an extreme anchor and see what happens 🙂

Price anchoring: start with the highest price instead of the lowest price to reduce price pain.
Price anchoring: start with the highest price instead of the lowest price to reduce price pain.
Set an anchor by showing your most expensive items first Click To Tweet

Back to school

Another unusual tactic has to do with everyone’s favourite: arithmetics. Remember when you had to practice the multiplication tables over and over when you were a kid? Most of us have potent recollections of memorising these sequences and know them by heart. After reading 6 × 3, you can probably hear the answer automatically, and effortlessly in your head. It’s that well encoded into your long-term memory.

Because of these strong connections, exposure to two numbers (6 and 3) increases processing fluency for the product (18). When a menu or a poster in a sushi restaurant offers 6 × 3 sushi, our brain will process the price of €18 more easily. Moreover, remember the easier our brain processes information, the more positively we evaluate the cost!

To recap

There are many scientifically proven methods for you to apply to help relieve your customer’s brains of the pain of paying. Many more other than the ones discussed here (like emotional marketing). The methods listed in this article will prove highly successful for the sushi market due to its typical way of selling items piece by piece. Help your customer’s brains avoid pain by redirecting the focus from paying, to solely the experience of enjoying sushi.

If you are looking for more tips, or want to know more about neuromarketing techniques like scarcity and urgency, or applied neuroscience in general, have a chat with our bot or get in touch!


  • The sources and Consequences of the Fluent Processing of numbers – Dan King & Chris Janiszewski (2011).
  • The Red and the Black: Mental Accounting of Savings and Debt – Drazen Prelec & George Loewenstein (1998).
  • Penny Wise and Pound Foolish: The Left-Digit Effect in Price Cognition – Thomas & Morwiz (2005).
  • $ or Dollars: Effects of Menu-price Formats on Restaurant Checks – Yang, Kimes, & Sessarego (2009).

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