“We can’t resist looking at faces”

When we (subconsciously) notice faces in our surroundings, we tend to first scan those faces (as shown in the picture), before looking at anything else.
facial distraction

Moreover, we cognitively process those faces thoroughly. Facial recognition is distinct from object recognition in terms of visual processing. There are distinctly separate parts of our brain involved (the so-called Fusiform Face Areas), and – more importantly – our brain puts a lots of complex processing in analyzing faces. Note: some visual processing of complex non-face shapes happen in this area as well.

facial distraction2

So faces take a huge amount of cognitive capacity in your brain (mostly subconsciously). Offline, this can work pretty persuasive. When someone looks at you, you look back and perceive all their facial expressions. Even more important, you pay more attention to their verbal message as well. Online however,  the same thing  happens, and that works counter effective. Your message is – most of the time – written in text, other images, bulleted lists etc. and a face on the page will distract attention, and therefore decrease your persuasiveness.

Scientific Research example

Please go back in your memory to the time you were just born. For the first time in your life you can see the world outside your mother. Now, do you remember what you preferred to look at? According to Mondloch et. al. (1999) newborns show a preference for following moving faces within the first 30 minutes of life. This is likely subcortical, with increasing cortical influence as weeks go by. When we’re four months old, we’re already processing faces as distinct objects.

There’s also neurological evidence for the importance of faces. People with a neurological disorder called ‘prosopagnosia’ are unable to recognise faces. However, they do recognize all other objects. This indicates that our brain evolved a dedicated system for facial recognition, apart from object recognition.

Finally research shows that the more familiar / recognisable a face is, the more it attracts attention.

Online Persuasion tips

Although faces attract attention, they can distract attention from your content. So:

  • Use faces to attract attention outside your own platforms (i.e. in banners, especially recognisable faces!)
  • Do not use faces on your own platforms (where you have already have their attention).
  • Always test the effect of the faces you use.
  • If you do use a face… use Gaze Cueing to redirect attention to your most persuasive content!


Further reading on the reflection effect: