Attentional Bias

By Ben Ambridge


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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 (like your maths textbook) and towards things that we find more exciting. But exactly what types of things best capture our attention varies from person to person. And this is a phenomenon that psychologists call attentional bias.

So, in this video, I’m going to tell you what attentional bias is, and how you can make it work for you – rather than against you – on your site.

So, exactly what types of things best capture our attention vary from person to person. And attentional bias was first studied in people who suffer from anxiety – who seem to be hyperaware of faces with threatening expressions – they find them very difficult to ignore.

On the other hand, people who are addicted to drinks or drugs have no trouble ignoring threatening faces – for them it’s pictures of alcohol or drug paraphernalia that they find impossible to ignore, no matter how hard they try.

Now obviously these groups of people probably aren’t particularly relevant for your site. But they have something in common with another group of people who might well be: impulsive buyers.

Now, you might think that having impulsive buyers on your site is a good thing. And in many ways, it is. But it can have its drawbacks too.

Just like 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 that they find it difficult to stay focused on the product they were originally intending to purchase.

And if they get so side-tracked that they end up not actually buying the thing that they came to your site to buy, then this is going to hurt your conversions.

There was a recent eye tracking study at the University of Vienna that looked at this – and by the way, eye tracking is something that we do a lot of at Endless Gain because it’s really really useful for seeing how your customers’ attention moves around the site. So that’s why they also used it in this particular study.

What happened was that people were put in a simulated shopping situation and asked to buy a toy for their nephew. Toys appeared on the site one after another and people 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. And this was true not only when they really liked the distracting products, but even when they were ones that they didn’t care about.

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

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….”.

For some people, sure, it might result in an additional sale. For others, it might act as a useful decoy (there’s a whole video about decoy effects in this series). 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. 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.

It is no accident that many of the most successful call-to-action buttons are in the middle of a screen that is otherwise almost blank, ensuring that there is absolutely nothing to draw the visitor’s attention elsewhere.

Maybe in the future then, what we’ll see more and more of is sites that can measure individual customers’ shopping impulsiveness in real-time and adapt accordingly; i.e. personalisation. The technology for personalisation is out there now, but most people aren’t using it yet.

So, for many sites, this could well be the way to go in the future. But in the meantime, make sure you design your tests carefully to find out whether attentional bias is working for you or against you.

Ben Ambridge
Hi, I’m Ben. I’m a Reader in Psychology at the University of Liverpool and I lead consumer psychology at Endless Gain. I’m interested in how research findings from academic psychology can be applied in our everyday lives as consumers. And, importantly how psychology plays an influential role in ecommerce. I write a weekly psychology column for The Observer, and my book Psy-Q: You Know Your IQ - Now Test Your Psychological Intelligence has been translated into 15 languages. Check out my TED talk, "Ten Myths about Psychology, Debunked".

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