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Communications & Marketing
Understanding attention – a psychological perspective

Our brain is receiving an endless amount of sensory stimulation competing for our attention. As gaining attention is the first step to attract consumers to buy, marketers are investing a lot of effort to build noteworthy content by utilising information on how we humans observe the world.


Elina Moreira Kares


Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 20.12.2022

Attention is a limited resource, that prioritises information for further processing. Without this filtering, our brains would be overheated with information – with no capacity to process it all.

In their blog post, Konttinen and Seppänen describe the Gestalt principles, which is a set of laws that attempt to explain how our brain groups information to make sense out of visual stimuli, and how these laws could be utilised in the marketing context. My text extends to the topic of attention and how it affects the selection of information and awareness.

Two ways of gaining attention

Attention can be bottom-up or top-down controlled. Bottom-up processing refers to environmentally driven attention, where a salient stimulus captures our attention because it stands out in our visual field due to e.g. colour, size, location, or unexpectancy. Bottom-up processing relies also on previously learned information about the world.

If we see a skirt among a rack of trousers, photo of a dog in a middle of photos of babies, or a bear on our evening walk in a forest – they are all very likely to catch our attention because they stand out of the context of what we expect to see.

Attention can be motivated, as top-down processing drives our attention based on our goals. This sense of motivated attention inhibits irrelevant information and facilitates the relevant based on, once again, previously learned information.

This task relevance directs attention e.g. based on the scene (when looking for shoes we scan first the floor level of the room), object features (when looking for a football, we scan only round shaped right-sized objects), other contextual factors (we expect to find a coat rack by an entrance or a sink from a toilet or kitchen), or even intrinsic needs (when hungry our attention is more likely capturing a smell of food) and motivations (we dream of a new specific car and we are likely to start seeing those exact models more often in the traffic).

Other factors affecting attention

The strength of motivational intensity, the intension to approach or avoid an event or object, impacts attention. Whereas high motivation decreases the scope of attention in order to pursue a goal, low motivation tends to broaden it, as opening awareness to other potentially more meaningful opportunities.

Emotions impact attention. High negative emotional states, such as anxiety or anger, can lead to tunnel vision, where only important event related cues are being processed. High positive emotional states, such as joy, tend to broaden our attention, as in opening our mind to new opportunities.

Emotions can impact attention also on a physical level by impacting visual processing directly. Fear can make us widen our eyes in preparation to better detect stimuli. Disgust can narrow them, to better focus on avoidance of something unpleasant. Emotions can also affect attention e.g. through memory, by highlighting goal relevant information that may impact decision making and thus, attention.

Attention in the bigger picture

As attention is selective and limited, its ultimate purpose is to bring relevant information to our awareness in order to guide our behaviour. Attention, like other cognitive functions, serve the brain in predicting scenarios and optimising functions to reach goals and avoid danger, with as little effort as possible.

Attention is a complex phenomenon, but by investing in understanding how it works under different circumstances, e.g. with the help of modern eye-tracking technology, a new level of insightfulness can be reached.

Elina Moreira Kares works at Haaga-Helia as a project specialist and also represents the LAB8 – Service Experience Laboratory, specialising in psychophysiological research. She is a master student at the University of Leicester, under the faculty of Psychology and Vision Sciences.