Limited Attention

Posted in Principles

Our ability to pay attention to several things at once is much more limited than we might think. This means that when our attentional capacity is stretched – for instance, when we are driving, listening to music, and texting all at once – we are left effectively blind to information we would easily notice under normal circumstances. Have you ever missed a highway exit and sworn there was no sign for it? Have you ever been admonished by a bureaucrat from forgetting to sign a form? If so, you have experienced limited attention. Do you think you can manage to carefully pay attention to two or three things at the same time? If you do, then take a look at the video below!

In this famous example, participants watched a video of two teams – one in white shorts and one in black shorts – passing a basketball. The participants were tasked with counting only the number of passes by the team in white shorts. While the participants are closely counting the number of passes, a woman in a gorilla suit walks to the center of the court, beats her chest, and exits. Remarkably, of the thousands of people who have now seen this video, only half notice the “gorilla”; and those that don’t notice are sure they didn’t miss anything.

When we design products and programs, we assume that if people don’t choose them, then they must not want them. Often, though, people simply didn’t notice what we put in front of them. Even if we get that people have limited attention, it’s hard to fathom how very limited it is. We may send a single email and then give up if people don’t respond. Or, we often put a large amount of information in front of people and expect that they’ll see all of it. Once we realize that attention is extremely limited and fleeting, we can design our products, programs or messages in a way that they can’t be missed. Making them visually prominent is one way to do this, as is exposing people to them multiple times. There are also other, more subtle, ways such as presenting them at times when people may be more likely to pay attention. You might be much more likely to pay attention to advice about healthy eating if you got it during your annual physical, than if your doctor’s office sent you a flyer several weeks later. Not only are you not focused on your health later, but that email or envelope is likely to be buried in a firehose of other communications.

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