“We pay attention to things that touch us”

The Attentional Bias is our tendency to pay more attention to emotionally dominant stimuli, and to neglect other relevant data when making decisions. So the more something touches us, the more attention we pay to it.

Classic examples of dominant emotions are i.e. pain, fear and sex. Research studying the Attentional Bias effect often involves ‘Dot Probe’ studies. In these studies a test subject has to look at the center of a screen, where two pictures with different emotions are shortly shown.

When the pictures are gone, a dot (dot probe) appears where one of the pictures was placed and your reaction time is measured. Emotionally dominant pictures cue one’s attention: reaction time is quickest when the dot probe is congruent with the most emotionally dominant picture (except when you have emotional deficits).

dot probe study

Scientific research example

Imagine you have an anxiety for spiders (you’re arachnophobic). Now I ask you to do ‘The Stroop Test’: in this test, I confront you with rows of words that are printed in different colors (e.g., red, green, yellow, and blue). All you have to do is name the color (not pronounce the word).

A consistent finding in Stroop studies with anxious patients is that their color naming of threatening words (spider, arachnid, spinner, tarantula, etc.) is slower than that of neutral words, and slower than with non-anxious patients. This is because it’s harder not to pay attention to emotionally dominant stimuli.

Online Persuasion tips

  • If your brand or product is related in a positive way to an intense emotion, promote this visually and context-wise.
  • Display your USP’s and CTA close to the most emotionally dominant parts of your page (e.g. an expressive image).
  • Place counter-persuasive elements (like ‘terms & conditions’ or ‘privacy’) away from the emotionally dominant parts of your page.

Further reading on the reflection effect: