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Attention deficit

‘The Influence of Selective Attention and Inattention to Products on Subsequent Choice’ from the Journal of Consumer Research.

By Nader Tavassoli . 08 May 2013


Why did we choose the car that we drive? The smartphone we own? The handbag we carry? Possibly, because we have seen them before, and in the act of noticing them, and ignoring other options, primed our brains to prefer those products to others.

Research suggests that, in the main, we choose products based on the perceived benefits that those products provide. Our car is quick, safe and comfortable. Our smartphone, trendy, and easy to use. More recently, however, it has been accepted that sources of preference may also exist, independent of perceptions of benefits.

New research by academics Chris Janiszewski (University of Florida), Andrew Kuo (Louisianna State University) and Nader T Tavassoli (London Business School), provides marketers with some food for thought on product choice. In The Influence of Selective Attention and Inattention to Products on Subsequent Choice, the authors assert that our attention processes affect the way that we make product choices. Not product decisions note. This is pre information processing and decision making.

Think of the process of attention in painting terms. Paintbrushes (neurons) paint the subject (an external object in the environment) onto a canvas (visual cortex). Then the brain tries to make some sense of the painting (perception), and then makes decisions based on the information. If the landscape is complex, only some paintbrushes get to do the fine details, the rest is roughed in. Attention can determine where the paintbrushes move more quickly or slowly (neural excitation or inhibition) and so produce the fine or coarse detail.

So when we see an object in a display, the increased firing of visual cortex neurons stimulated by distinct features of that display, fixes our attention on it. And equally detracts our attention from surrounding items. When we see it again, the neurons fire up, our attention is attracted to it, and we are more likely to choose that item. That’s the theory.

Five experiments were conducted to test whether the initial selective attention affected subsequent preference decisions. The experiments were variations on a sorting and selecting theme, involving various items that included chewing gum, cheese and chocolate. Get people to sort the objects, then ask them later to choose one as a reward. More people chose the item that their attention was selectively focused on during the sorting/selecting task. Furthermore, the research confirmed another hypothesis suggested by the authors. That the preference (and rejection) effect is greater when there is more than one item competing for our attention. The more confusing the visual landscape, the harder it is to focus attention on the desired object, the stronger the selection/ rejection effect in the future. There are limitations on the amount of information the brain can process at any given time, thus selective attention allows us to focus on the information most relevant to our behaviour at the time. The increased firing of the visual cortex, and hence our attention, is more likely: if we have seen the object before; it is relevant to our goals; it is more noticeable in the environment.

So not all attention is good attention it seems. Marketers, for example, should be mindful of the effect popular products have on adjacent products. The selective inattention an adjacent product receives may result in it being rejected by consumers if presented with a choice between that product and another.

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