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The secrets of guiding attention Zeigarnik Effect

The secrets of capturing and guiding attention

If you ever took a psychology class, you might recall something about a Russian scientist and salivating dogs. To refresh your memory: we are talking about Ivan Pavlov, the father of classical conditioning. In his famous experiment, he succeeded in guiding attention and making dogs salivate just by ringing a bell. Doing so, he created a strong association between the sound of the ringing bell and food.

What psychology professors often fail to include, or simply don’t know- is that under certain special circumstances this effect does not occur. When a third party attended Pavlov’s experiment the salivating effect was absent. The sudden presence of the observer hijacked the dog’s attention, overriding the powerful effect of conditioning.

What is true for dogs is, in this case, true for humans as well. Principles like these can be extremely valuable. A vast amount of useful neuroscientific research is done. Yet, capturing attention, guiding attention, and retaining attention is not used to its fullest potential by educators and marketers. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the most used mechanisms of capturing and guiding attention.

Classical Conditioning Crash Course

For those who weren’t paying attention in class: here’s a quick recap. Pavlov conditioned his dogs by ringing a bell while presenting them their food. In preparation for eating, the dogs started salivating. After many repetitions, the sound of the bell alone triggered the salivation. A strong association between the sound of the bell and receiving food is formed. This principle is known as conditioning.

Once conditioned association are formed, they can be used to evoke desired behavior, and not just in dogs.

As noted earlier, the effect did not occur when a novel stimulus was guiding attention of the dogs. Pavlov recognised this behavior. He labelled it ‘the investigatory reflex’.

It is necessary to be aware of the changes in the environment to survive the harsh reality of natural selection. All animals (including you and I) need to actively and acutely focus on all potential opportunities or threats in the surroundings. This survival instinct is so powerful that it supercedes all other operations.

Did you forget again?

Let’s start with an example. You walk from your kitchen to your bedroom. Upon entering the bedroom -doorknob still in your hand- you cannot recall what you needed to do in there. Even if your life depended on it. It might feel like your brain has started deteriorating rapidly. Luckily, this is not the case.

When you enter another room, your surroundings suddenly change. Your brain focuses on redirecting and adjusting your attention to the new situation. This calls for the full capacity of your cognitive energy. And therefore you fail to recall what you had to do, just like Pavlov’s dogs. But whereas in dogs this effect is known as the ‘the investigatory reflex‘, in humans this is called ‘the orienting response’.

The neuroscience of attention

In dogs the investigatory reflex only affects the senses (the ringing of the bell). Yet, the orienting response in humans affects more. Blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration react to the orienting response as well. With the use of brain imaging technologies, specific brainwaves that correspond with shifts in attention were identified. These brain waves are known as O-waves. Neuroscientists were able to identify the stimuli that produced the most powerful shifts in attention.

With this knowledge on their side, it was only a matter of time these stimuli were applied in marketing. Using strategically placed cuts in commercials instigates a powerful orienting response, guiding attention on the desired message.

Death by a thousand cuts

As is the case with most principles in applied neuropsychology, improper implementation can trigger the exact opposite of the intended behavior. This concept is known as psychological backfiring.

Following the developments in the neuroscience of attention, the average frequency of cuts in advertisements increased by more than 50%. But more is not always better. Due to the excessive amount of cuts, the viewers’ attention is continuously drawn away. Therefore attention scatters instead of focuses. And consumers are unable to understand the intended message. Or as Dr Robert Cialdini himself calls it in his book Pre-Suasion (2016): death by a thousand cuts.

Standing out in the spam

Now that you know how not to do it, let’s go over some ways of successfully guiding attention using the principle of the orienting response. When redirecting and capturing your audience’s attention, attention cues should be used sparsely and placed correctly.

In comparison to their primate predecessors, modern-day consumers are relatively desensitised when it comes to attention cues. An orienting response could indicate a life or death situation to our ancestors. Nowadays we now know that cuts in commercial breaks won’t kill us. Therefore we pay less attention when spammed. To effectively reach your audience you should place the cut that orients your audience’s attention just before you deliver the main point in the video commercial.

Contrasts cue attention

The human brain is capable of rapid visual processing. The world of marketing is fully aware of that. Strolling through a city shopping centre, you see many billboards and posters. It may seem like overkill. But your brain can scan, observe, and process one advertisement in just 0.013 seconds.

Now how does one create a billboard or poster advertisement that is remembered over all the others? After all, we pay no more than 13 milliseconds looking at each. Start with contrast.

By differentiating in color and luminance, an object can be designed to stand out from its surroundings. Remarkable and outstanding features draw our attention. High contrast facilitates visual processing. And it also focusses the viewers’ attention on the desired point. This could be either a picture on a billboard, a brand name on a magazine, or an opt-in button on a website. The right contrast -in combination with bright copywriting- can make all the difference.

Everything is relative

All our sensory input is processed relative to previous experiences. That is why contrast enhancement doesn’t stop with color. Contrasting works on all domains of perception. This contrasting effect takes place whenever the enhancement or reduction of an observed stimulus is compared with a contrasting object.

Prices, products, and even the partners we choose are all susceptible to the contrast effect. But since we are so often exposed to contrasts, the concept is more likely to backfire when applied poorly. When contrasts are overused the overall attention of the audience may increase; however, they won’t be able to focus and remember due to overstimulation. Subtlety is key here.

The Zeigarnik Effect: As demonstrated by waiters

Distinguished psychology professor Kurt Lewin was dining in a restaurant in the late ’20s of the previous century when he noticed something interesting. Being masters of their craft, the waiters in the restaurant seemed to have an excellent memory for processing orders of the guests.

It was no challenge for them to remember all the tailored orders and drinks of choice of a high society company occupying all 12 seats of a dining table. But after every guest had received their drink and dinner, Lewin asked the waiter about his order again. This time, he found that the waiter could no longer recall anything about the previous orders.

Being a busy professor, he passed his observations on to one of his students. Bluma Zeigarnik conducted a series of experiments in which she compared memory of unfinished tasks to memory of finished tasks. She consistently found that recall was much better for uncompleted tasks. And the Zeigarnik effect was born.

Wait for it…

You can use this effect to your advantage too. When you are pitching, teaching, or storytelling, it is essential to hold the audiences attention. By asking the audience a question or telling an anecdote without revealing the answer or end, you evoke this Zeigarnik effect in your audience. A feeling of incompletion will cause your audience to actively try and finish their task: finding the answer to the question. And therefore they are obligated to listen until the end of the story carefully.

Professor Emeritus Robert Cialdini -known endorser of the Zeigarnik effect- used this technique to cue the attention of his students at the beginning of his lectures. By saving the answer for the end of the lecture, or even better, by telling that the answer is hidden within the lecture, the students were drawn and kept in a state of focus.

When you decide to put this technique into practice yourself, please remember to allow your audience to ‘finish their task’ by ultimately giving them the answer. An unresolved Zeigarnik effect can cause sleepless nights.

You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention

Guiding attention can be extremely powerful. It has been with humans since the dawn of time. The ability to focus and shift attention was necessary to help us survive and evolve. Today, it has become the ultimate trophy for each marketer. By applying insights of psychology and neuroscience, attention can be guided. But it’s not that easy. As you have seen, improper implementation could result in reversed outcomes.

With the ongoing contest for attention, one thing is certain: attention is becoming increasingly rare. So when you have someone’s attention: make it count. Whether you’re a marketer, lecturer, or storyteller, your message should be authentic, consistent, and entertaining.

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Philip Jordanov

Cognitive Neuropsychologist @ Neurofied