You Better Wake Up and Pay Attention

Ben Ambridge

Pay attention! How many times did you hear that in school? If you’re like most people, quite a bit. We all naturally find our attention drawn away from things that we find less interesting (for example your maths textbook) and towards things that we find rather more exciting.

Attentional Bias

But exactly what types of things best capture our attention varies from person to person; a phenomenon that psychologists call attentional bias.

For example, people who suffer from anxiety are hyper-aware of faces with threatening expressions1, and find them extremely difficult to ignore. Similarly, people addicted to drink or drugs find it impossible to ignore pictures of alcohol or drug paraphernalia, even when they are trying hard to do so2.

There is another group of people who have something in common with those addicted to drugs or alcohol: impulsive buyers.

Impulsive buying is not always a good thing!

Now, you might think that having impulsive buyers on your site is a good thing. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Just as drug and alcohol users have their attention drawn away by drug- and alcohol-related cues, so “addictive” shoppers have their attention drawn away by shopping-related cues.

This means they find it difficult to stay focused on the product they were originally intending to purchase. Needless to say, this isn’t great for your conversions.

This was nicely demonstrated in an eye-tracking study conducted at the University of Vienna3 in Austria. Participants were placed in a simulated shopping situation and asked to buy a toy for their nephew. A series of toys appeared on screen, and participants had to say whether or not each would be suitable.

The researchers found that people who scored high on a questionnaire measure of shopping impulsiveness were extremely bad at focusing on the toy in question when other products were also shown on the same screen.

Interestingly, this was true whether the other products were those that the participants were interested in (desirable cosmetics that they rated as highly attractive) or ones that they didn’t particularly care about at all (other toys).

Impulsive shoppers show attentional bias for any buying opportunities, even ones that aren’t particularly attractive to them.

What Does Attentional Bias Mean for Your Site?

The implications for your site are clear. If the user has clicked through to the page for a particular product, you should think very carefully before displaying – for example – a sidebar showing “People who liked this also liked….”.

Sure, it might result in an additional purchase. But if your visitor is an impulsive buyer, it may distract their attention away so much that you lose the original sale.

And this is doubly true on the payment-details page. Sure, you might be able to persuade your shopper to add another item to their cart at the last minute. But you also risk them going off elsewhere, resulting in the dreaded abandoned cart.

The ideal for the future, then, is a site that measures the visitor’s shopping impulsiveness in real-time and adapts accordingly. In the meantime, make sure you design your tests carefully to find out whether attentional bias is working for you or against you.

[1] Threat-related attentional bias in anxious and non-anxious individuals  

[2]  Attentional bias in addictive behaviours

[3]  Hard to Ignore: Impulsive Buyers Show an Attentional Bias in Shopping Situations