Standing out from the crowd. The saliency bias.

Why is salience such an essential concept within behavioural science? And how can we use it to our advantage?

People only notice something when it stands out to them; otherwise, it is almost invisible. A simple example of this is when you decide to look for a particular make of car, and then you start to see these everywhere. The number of these cars has not suddenly increased. They were always there. It is just your attention to them that has altered. This make of car is now the most noticeable and relevant thing to you. It is salient, so your brain ‘looks’ for it. This is an example of where salience has been brought about by shifting attention to a specific feature. Still, many external and internal factors can produce saliency. Humans have a bias to be constantly drawn towards salience.

Why do we exhibit a bias towards salience? Because it takes less cognitive effort to align to something salient, this ability supports our situational awareness as it helps us filter information. For example, a driver going at 40 miles per hour can quickly focus on relevant things such as pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles from a fast-moving stream of visual information. Note how this cognitive shortcut can often lead us to misattribute causality. Salient things stand out, grab our attention, and stick around in our memory more, so we tend to overestimate the probability of salient things happening. Thaler states, “Thus, vivid and easily imagined causes of death (for example, tornadoes) often receive inflated estimates of probability, and less-vivid causes (for example, asthma attacks) receive low estimates, even if they occur with a far greater frequency (here, by a factor of twenty)”.

How can we use this to our advantage when creating impactful campaigns that aim to alter behaviour? Saliency is a tool that we can use in all areas of a communications campaign. It can be employed to give click-through buttons more weight or reduce the impact of components where we would like less engagement. It is about choosing what you want your audience to notice and remember and then making these elements relevant, important and prominent, so they grab attention and stick to memory.

This article was written by Ethan McQuaid, Behavioural Data Analyst at Lynn PR.