Why do we focus on more prominent things and ignore those that are less so?


Salience bias

, explained.

What is the Salience Bias?

The salience bias (also known as perceptual salience) refers to the fact that individuals are more likely to focus on items or information that are more prominent and ignore those that are less so. This creates a bias in favour of things that are striking and perceptible (Kahneman et al. 1982, Bordalo et al. 2012, Allcott and Wozny 2013).

Why does it happen?

It 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

Why is it important?

The ability to quickly detect what is important and deserving of attentional resources is an important survival and learning mechanism. It allows many living creatures to focus limited cognitive resources on key pieces of information.

However, at the crucial moment of decision-making we may focus on features that are easy to process and vivid, rather than more informative but harder to quantify ones. This can lead to suboptimal decisions. Which issues the media cover can often influence what we judge to be salient. This can shift our attention to rare dangers like plane crashes, rather than more common but underreported threats such as prostate cancer.

Example of Salience Bias

The salience bias may be the reason that there is often a gap between our aspirations and our behaviours. We may want to eat healthier, but the smell and taste of unhealthy confectionary treats are more salient than the calorific or health aspects. The immediate rewards of eating the cake are more visible than the long-term costs (Milkman et al. 2008, Loewenstein 1996)

Businesses often run into planning errors and delays because of a failure to account for less salient aspects of the process such as administrative tasks or other ancillary steps (Hirshleifer 2008).

Behavioural scientists can use the salience bias to nudge individuals towards certain behaviours. Making call-to-action buttons more colorful can direct attention towards that action. Kehr(2015) demonstrated that making privacy a more salient feature at the moment of decision-making can remind customers of the risks of sharing sensitive personal data .

The salience bias is a crucial obstacle for environmental protection and climate change mitigation efforts. The benefits of a warm shower are immediate and perceptible, but the water and energy costs are much less so (Attari et al. 2010, Attari 2014).


Allcott, Hunt, Nathan Wozny, 2013. Gasoline prices, fuel economy, and the energy paradox. Review of Economics and Statistics 96(5) 779–795.

Attari, S. Z., M. L. DeKay, C. I. Davidson, W. Bruine de Bruin, 2010. Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(37) 16054–16059

Attari, Shahzeen Z, 2014. Perceptions of water use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(14) 5129–5134

Bordalo, P., N. Gennaioli, A. Shleifer, 2012. Salience theory of choice under risk. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 127(3) 1243–1285.

Hirshleifer, David, 2008. Psychological bias as a driver of financial regulation. European Financial Management 14(5) 856–874

Kahneman, D, P Slovic, A Tversky, 1982. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biasescambridge univ. Press, Cambridge .

Kehr, Flavius, 2015. Feeling and thinking: On the role of intuitive processes in shaping decisions about privacy.

Loewenstein, George, 1996. Out of control: Visceral influences on behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes 65(3) 272–292.

Milkman, Katherine L, Todd Rogers, Max H Bazerman, 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.