Monday, 16 December 2013

Blink and you'll miss it

We like to think that we absorb most of what goes on around us, however our ability to attend to things can be remarkably limited. That's why when we watch the latest blockbuster most of us fail to notice when an apartment number changes [1], a cup switches colour [2], or even when a previously dented car is driven away scratch-free [3].

The fact that we can miss these things is not new, but it still surprises us when it happens. We are constantly bombarded with a barrage of sensory information. It is our fantastic ability to automatically filter out most of this information and to selectively attend to the small fragments of this stream that make our experience of the world so effortless. However it is what also makes us particularly susceptible to misdirection used by tricks such as those featured in Derren Brown's: The Great Art Robbery shown last Friday.

A widely researched phenomenon in the psychological literature is the Attentional Blink [4]. It occurs when individuals are asked to identify 'targets' during the rapid presentation of stimuli in series. Identifying a target makes individuals often fail to recognise a second target presented 180-450ms after the first one. A recently published paper in Psychological Science suggested that a similar process may underpin the failure to detect multiple targets in a self-paced search task [5].

So what does this mean?

Real-world searches quite often involve the need to (potentially) identify multiple targets. The authors give the examples of radiologists searching for tumours, and airport attendants scanning luggage. Failure to spot a target in either of these cases could have serious consequences. Understanding the presence of this effect could help put procedures in place to tackle the problem and increase identification rates.

In the consumer world packaging vies for the attention of shoppers on the shelves in stores.  Whilst companies have limited control on the ‘procedures’ consumers adopt, understanding the effect could help optimise packaging.  For example it is known that faces can escape the Attentional Blink [6].  Recognising the effect could also be important from a usability point of view.  As designers seek to optimise the flow for users, knowing what affects the fluency of navigation matters. Of course in both situations there are a variety of other factors at play. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that a better comprehension of how we attend to things should enable us to improve almost any engagement opportunity.

Dan Siddle
Research Innovation Specialist

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