Why do we focus on items or information that are more prominent and ignore those that are not?

The 

Salience bias

, explained.

In a nutshell:

What is the Salience Bias?

The salience bias (also known as perceptual salience) describes our tendency to focus on items or information that are more noteworthy while ignoring those that do not grab our attention.

Where might I see it?

Imagine you are someone who watches the news and sees several news stories of violence in your city. Although your likelihood of being a victim of violence has not changed, the memory of violence in your city remains salient in your mind and makes you feel more vulnerable when leaving your home.

How it causes us to make bad decisions individually

While the ability to quickly detect what is important and deserving of attentional resources is an important survival and learning mechanism, our predisposition to focus on the most prominent and emotionally striking details at hand leads us to ignore potentially vital pieces of information. In turn, this can prompt us to make suboptimal decisions such as forgoing healthy eating because the smell and taste of unhealthy foods are more salient than details related to how they may affect our health.

How those decisions add up to systemic challenges

The impacts of the salience bias at a systemic level are far-reaching and highly consequential. For example, businesses often run into planning errors and delays because of a failure to account for less salient aspects of their operations such as administrative tasks or other ancillary steps that must be taken. The salience bias can also be considered a crucial obstacle for environmental protection and climate change mitigation efforts. For many people, the benefits of a warm shower are immediate and perceptible, but the water and energy costs are much less so. As a result, the salience bias impedes us from focusing on the actions required to protect the environment.

Why does it happen?

The salience bias arises from a contrast (often unexpected) between items and their surroundings, such as a black sheep in a herd of white sheep, or a car alarm going off during a quiet day. It can be the result of a number of emotional or cognitive factors, not necessarily from some physical feature that someone can clearly see. The salience bias commonly develops as a result of a psychological process such as cognitive ease, it can occur over time as we become accustomed to prominent features in our day-to-day lives, and it can also appear simply because our individual interests draw us toward specific aspects of the world.

Cognitive ease

The salience bias commonly manifests itself in the psychological process known as cognitive ease. Generally, humans avoid stressful and demanding cognitive strain, often making them vulnerable to many biases. This “laziness” and desire for cognitive ease can lead individuals to a world of irrationality where they make decisions according to elements that appear most salient. For instance, luminance, texture, contrast, and the scale of objects or ideas play a role in simplifying the mind’s decision-making process, which then leads to a salience bias.1

Elements that develop over time

Some elements may become salient over time as we gain the habit of noticing them only at a particular moment. For example, we may pay no attention to the cars passing us by in the street until the very moment we wish to cross the street, in which case the cars suddenly become our primary focus. Another example would be if you find certain smells or sounds particularly salient because they were present in your childhood home when you were growing up.

A matter of personal interest

What we do and our personal interests can also affect what we find salient. Someone who works in fashion, for example, will be more likely to notice fashion-related details than someone whose primary interest lies elsewhere. Additionally, an avid listener of music could find a tune or melody that they enjoy to be particularly salient if they heard it while walking down the street.

Why should someone be aware of it?

The salience bias has serious consequences in the fight against broad societal issues in addition to its impact on many aspects of one’s daily life.

People make thousands of decisions per day and attention-grabbing factors such as appearance, taste, sound, and even conversational relevance hinder the mind’s ability to make entirely rational calculations. Having an awareness of our biases to salient aspects of life can safeguard against poor reasoning and costly mistakes in our personal and professional lives.

As studies have shown, this awareness is the key to overcoming the salience bias.2 Indeed, whether people are trying to maintain a healthy diet or attempting to manage their personal finances, being critically aware of how the salience bias manifests itself can enable them to have control over their decision-making and to overwhelmingly improve their lives.

How to avoid it

The salience bias occurs when we base our decisions on factors that appear most salient. When we are aware that the bias is at play, it can enable us to step back and properly evaluate the decision that is soon to be made. Though maintaining awareness of the bias is no ‘silver bullet’ that can ensure our decisions are always well-informed, it can mitigate some of the more detrimental impacts of the bias.

Researchers have suggested that giving individuals real-time feedback concerning the choices they are about to make is one solution to avoiding the trap of the salience bias. Additionally, at a systemic or political level, researchers have pointed to the delayed implementation of laws and policy as a potential way of avoiding the bias.

Real-time feedback

Studies have shown that real-time feedback on a specific behavior can induce large behavioral changes. When individuals are made aware of the consequences of their behaviour as it occurs, they are more likely to adapt and make smarter choices. In the areas of resource consumption, having an awareness of salience bias can lead people to make environmentally-conscious decisions. For example, the cost and environmental impact of driving could be displayed in real time from the start of each trip, or the impact of current driving style on vehicle range, gasoline costs, or material strain. Another example, provided by Verena et al., illustrates that when consumers are made aware of their daily energy use from showering, they significantly reduce their consumption patterns.3

Beyond resource conservation, real-time feedback can prove effective wherever salience bias alters the decisions that we make. Specifically, real-time feedback can mitigate the salience bias’ impact on caloric intake. Studies have shown that displaying caloric information in restaurants reduces caloric intake by individuals. Thus, there is strong reason to believe that real-time feedback about caloric intake throughout the day would be helpful to individuals suffering from salience bias.4

Delayed policy implementation

Policymakers can also take the salience bias into account in hopes of mitigating its negative effect at the societal level. Studies have shown that citizens know there are certain policies they should support because of how they will benefit society, yet they choose not to because other policies might be visibly beneficial. To counter this occurrence of the salience bias, researchers have found that people will support policies that they know they should support when these policies are implemented in a visible rather than opaque fashion.

For example, when a “should” policy (e.g., an increase in the price of gas to reduce pollution) is implemented in the distant future, it is more strongly associated with abstract, goal-relevant attributes (e.g., this will reduce pollution). However, this policy is more strongly associated with its concrete attributes and tangible implications when it is implemented in the near future (e.g., this will increase in the price of gas), leading citizens to oppose the policy.5

How it all started

The psychologists Shelley Taylor and Susan Fiske were among the first researchers to popularize the term perceptual salience in 1975.6 The two psychologists set up their research experiment by placing two people face-to-face as they engaged in a conversation while other people sat in a circle around them. Afterwards, Taylor and Fiske asked the people from the circle to attribute cause for several incidents. The people attributed more cause to the people whose faces they could see better. As a result, Taylor and Fiske were able to determine that the salience of certain factors can influence what people see, hear, and decide. This experiment, among others, represents one of the first measurements of the salience bias.

Subsequent researchers have applied the salience bias (or perceptual salience) to numerous other aspects of life. The law professor Deborah H. Schenk, for example, has applied research on the salience bias to the field of tax law. Schenk has found that policymakers can exploit the salience bias of a country’s population to increase taxes without specific high-earning individuals or corporations noticing.7 Other researchers have considered the effects of the salience bias in everything from our health, how we manage our finances, to climate change. Indeed, it is the belief of many researchers that if we can develop an awareness of this bias, many of our individual and societal problems could be solved.

Example 1

While many individuals state to have high privacy concerns, prior research has shown that they often freely disclose private information when using information systems like the internet. This dichotomy has been coined the privacy paradox. Specifically, individuals may find certain aspects of a website such as the design or the content to be especially appealing. Due to the salience of these aspects, people may forget about their privacy concerns as they willingly give up their personal information to websites that suit their tastes.

A study by Flavius Kehr offers a solution to mitigate the extent of the salience bias in the field of personal privacy. Kehr suggests that making privacy a more salient feature at the moment of decision-making can remind customers of the risks of sharing sensitive personal data. This reminder could take the form of a message that pops up on an individual’s personal computer when he or she attempts to share private information. Once reminded, customers can then decide whether the risk of sharing their personal data is worth whatever salient aspect of the website originally caught their eyes.8 It is the hope of Kehr that internet users can thus use such an awareness to ensure that they are not giving away information that could put them in at risk of identity fraud and other similar situations.

Example 2

When purchasing a car, customers know they should consider such factors as fuel economy in their decision, yet they often forget about fuel economy when they see the attractive physical features that cars have to offer. The salience bias is once again at play in this scenario as the salient features of a car’s exterior sway the consumer to make a decision that does not consider whether or not the car is fuel efficient. As a result, the customer could make a financially inadvisable decision that would have been avoidable if they were aware of the salience bias at play.

Hunt Allcott and Nathan Wozny illustrate this bias in their study of how consumers undervalue future gasoline costs relative to purchase prices when they choose automobiles. Their research demonstrates that consumers are commonly indifferent to whether or not their car will lower their future gas costs, possibly because they are swayed by other salient aspects of the car. Thus, being aware of the salience bias can enable consumers to make well-informed decisions that may save them money down the road.9

Summary

What it is

The salience bias (also known as perceptual salience) occurs when we focus on items or information that are especially remarkable while casting aside those that lack prominence. Yet, people tend to overlook this difference because it often appears irrelevant from an objective point of view.

Why it happens

The salience bias arises from a contrast (often unexpected) between items and their surroundings, such as a black sheep in a herd of white sheep, or a person talking on the phone in a quiet elevator. It can be the result of a host of emotional or cognitive factors, not necessarily from some physical feature in the person’s field of view.

Example #1

Many people are very worried about protecting their personal information when using the internet. However, if a salient aspect of a website catches an individual’s eye, he or she will happily give out personal information without considering the consequences. People must, thus, maintain awareness of the salience bias when using the internet.

Example #2

When shopping for a new car, consumers will know that they should consider fuel efficiency, yet they are drawn to attractive features of the car that provide no financial incentive. Many consumers ultimately purchase a car that has salient features despite the fact that this was not the financially prudent decision.

How to avoid it

The salience bias occurs when we base our decisions on factors that appear most salient. When we are aware that the bias is at play, it can enable us to step back and properly evaluate the decision that is soon to be made. Though maintaining awareness of the bias is no ‘silver bullet’ that can ensure our decisions are always well-informed, it can mitigate some of the more detrimental impacts of the bias.

Related TDL articles

Tackling Climate Change (1/2): Why Don’t We Act On Climate Issues?

This article addresses the cognitive barriers that we face as a society to tackling the issue of climate change. It considers the salience bias to be a primary factor that has limited our ability to take real action in hopes of protecting the environment.

This Is Your Brain On Money

This article considers how we treat money differently depending on its sources and intended use. The salience bias is featured prominently as the article discusses how our perception of money can dramatically change.

Sources

  1. Armenia, G. (2013). Lazy Thinking: How Cognitive Easing Affects the Decision Making Process of Business Professionals. Honors College Theses. 126. https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/honorscollege_theses/126.
  2. Verena et al. (2018). Overcoming Salience Bias: How Real-Time Feedback Fosters Resource Conservation. Management Science, 64(3), 1458-1476.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bollinger et al. (2010). Calorie posting in chain restaurants. National Bureau of Economic Research.
  5. Milkman, K. L., Rogers, T., & Bazerman, M. H. (2008). Harnessing Our Inner Angels and Demons: What We Have Learned About Want/Should Conflicts and How That Knowledge Can Help Us Reduce Short-Sighted Decision Making. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(4), 324–338. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00083.x
  6. Taylor, S. E., & Fiske, S. T. (1975). Point of view and perceptions of causality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(3), 439–445. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0077095
  7. Schenk, D. H. (2011). Exploiting the Salience Bias in Designing Taxes, 28 Yale J. https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjreg/vol28/iss2/2.
  8. Kehr, F. (2016). Feeling and thinking: On the role of intuitive processes in shaping decisions about privacy (Doctoral dissertation, Universität St. Gallen).
  9. Allcott, H. and Wozny, N. (2014). Gasoline Prices, Fuel Economy, and the Energy Paradox, The Review of Economics and Statistics, 96, issue 5, 779-795. https://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:tpr:restat:v:96:y:2014:i:5:p:779-795.