Von Restorff Effect

By Ben Ambridge


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Hedwig von Restorff, was a German psychologist who was born in 1906. In 1933, she did some experiments at the University of Berlin that became so famous that psychologists today still talk about the Von Restorff effect. And, in fact, whether you have heard that name or not, you almost certainly use websites that make use of it, and perhaps even unconsciously incorporated it into you own.

So what is the Von Restorff effect? Suppose I ask you to memorise this list:

9, 12, 3, 16, QX, 14, 11, 2, 7

Now list everything you remember. Go! I bet you didn’t get all the numbers. But I bet you remembered QX, right? You’ve just completed one of the experiments that Von Restoff did in 1933.

What she found was the same thing you almost certainly found for yourself – you remember the item that sticks out – the one that is different to all the rest. We even have a saying for this – we remember the one that sticks out like a sore thumb (or as Von Restorff herself would have said in the German version of this expression – the one that stands out like a colourful dog).

One detail of Von Restoff’s studies that isn’t always remembered these days is that, for the effect to work best, it is important that all of the other items are very similar to one another.

In the list I gave you, the QX stood out because all the other items were very similar to one another – they were all small numbers. If I’d added another couple of items of different types (words or symbols for example), the QX wouldn’t have stood out nearly so much.

The lesson for your website is obvious, and it’s one that we’ve used often at Endless Gain; including in particular for Miss Guided, where we got some really great results with it. If you want your customers to choose a particular product, option, or package, make sure that it sticks out visually compared to the others.

Sometimes this is done deliberately with something like a star or an arrow saying “best value”, but this is arguably a little unsubtle – customers might be suspicious about why you’re trying so hard to get them to pick that one. But if you just make it look different visually to all the others, customers will find themselves remembering it without even knowing why.

This is particularly true of product listing pages, where you might have quite a few very similar items shown at once. The same applies to your site itself. In a world where most websites use one of the same handful of templates, yours will be all the more memorable if you can make it visually stand out from the crowd.

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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