The Basic Idea
“What makes you stand out?”
Interviewers, career counsellors, and admissions committees love this question. How many times have you been told you need to develop your personal brand, asked what makes you unique, and showered with tips on how to set yourself apart from the next candidate? As repetitive [and perhaps annoying] as these phrases can be, they are rooted in a psychological concept known as salience, something that humans – including your next boss – are consistently drawn towards.
Simply put, salience is the quality of something standing out from its neighbors or surroundings. Salience can arise from a multitude of external and internal factors. For instance, your eyes would be drawn to a black sheep amongst a herd of white sheep, which is a sensory contrast.
When making difficult decisions, one solution may stand out based on the fact that we have seen it before – this happens because our brain prefers the choice that is the least stressful to digest, known as cognitive ease. For instance, if you recently saw a news channel talking about a plane crash, you will be more cautious about planes, rather than grappling with the statistics of how unlikely a plane crash actually is.
Theory, meet practice
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Cognitive ease: Our brain’s preference for information that is easier to process
Availability heuristic: The reliance on the most immediate, recallable examples when evaluating a decision or concept
Attribution theory: The process of arriving at causal explanations for social events using perceived information
In 1958, the psychologist Fritz Heider published a work on attribution theory that investigated the ways in which people’s attributes cause the behaviors of others around them. Heider found that the perceiver is prone to the salience bias when arriving at these causal behavior explanations. To an observer, the people they observe are actors, and these’ actors’ behavior is a more salient object than the context they may be.1
In 1972, Jones and Nisbett built off Heider’s findings, finding that people observing an event were more likely to attribute the event’s salient features to some intrinsic qualities of the objects involved, rather than situational context.2
Around the same time, Kahneman and Taversky’s work on the availability heuristic was unveiled, finding that people used the information they could easily recall when making predictions or estimating the likelihood of things.3 They experimented with several different factors that could potentially make things more available, such as specificity, a letter at the beginning of a word versus in the middle, and time since the thing was last encountered. This set the stage for further investigation on what made things stand out in our memories.
One of the earliest experiments targeting salience was performed by Taylor and Fiske in 1975. They had two actors sit face-to-face and have a conversation with a ring of observers around them. Due to this seating arrangement, most observers could only see the face of one actor. They found that the observers reported that the actor they could see more clearly was the dominant one and played a bigger role in setting the conversation’s tone. The researchers termed this “perceptual salience.”4
Taylor and Fiske later found evidence that humans prefer simpler cues for making conclusions, dubbing people as “cognitive misers.” They found that salient objects lend themselves to cognitive ease.5
More recent work has found the effect of salience in a wide variety of areas, such as eating disorders, environment-friendly habits, media sensationalization, and consumption choices.
Heider is known for making significant contributions to the field of social psychology, most famously with his concept of attribution theory. He believed that people viewed the world as though they were naïve psychologists, and his work attempted to declassify how so. By examining how people perceive environments and the behaviors of their neighbours, he took the initial steps in finding the areas in which salience played a role.
Shelley Taylor and Susan Fiske
Taylor and Fiske have been recognized for their work on how cognitive biases shape social interactions. Originally a professor-student duo, they are credited with bridging the gap between social psychology and cognitive psychology, which had been considered separate fields before. They were the first to provide perceptual salience with a label and target it as an object of investigation.
Valuing the most salient things can lead us to misattribute causality. For example, the actor-observer bias stems from the fact that the environment is more salient to an actor than the self, and the actor is more salient to an observer than the environment. For instance, when the doctor tells us that we have a high cholesterol problem, we tend to quickly blame the genetic and environmental factors that might have caused this issue, not our actions. However, when we hear a distant acquaintance say that they have the same health problem, we are more critical, thinking that it is because of their poor exercise and diet habits.6
In a slightly different example of ambiguous causality, think of a person you know who has accomplished something significant and received acclaim for it. If you are from a more marginalized background than this person, you may focus on their high level of privilege as a main causal factor that allowed them to r achieve this success. On the other hand, if you come from a similar background as this person, then the hard work they put into their goals may seem more salient to you.
Being drawn towards the most salient features of an object also leads us to miss out on its other characteristics which could potentially be crucial. The salience bias is a cognitive bias in which this is exactly what happens. If a busy hiring manager is reviewing resumes in a rush, they may only focus on prior experience at big-name companies, automatically throwing these brand-name resumes into the “Yes” pile. Unfortunately, this manager could be missing out on many excellent candidates who have a great experience, but no big names. On the other hand, this salience bias can also work to your advantage when trying to get hired, if you stand out enough. This is precisely why people love going to big-name universities, and why we are told to craft a unique, memorable elevator pitch; making something stand out as much as possible can be incredibly beneficial for your development.
Salience can have an effect on how importantly we perceive events happening around us, sometimes subverting what might be rationally expected. For example, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about his experience of the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s, and how the people around him eventually normalized the situation they were in. One day, the news of a little boy who fell into a well in Italy went viral, and for several days, Lebanon focused on the story with dedication and emotional involvement, paying little attention to the violence and political upheaval that had been going on for months. Taleb believes that once the war had become uninteresting to the average person, this far away tragedy was more salient.7
Salience has been an interesting topic in the metastudy of psychology. In particular, social experimental psychology frequently relies on experimental conditions in which subjects are isolated in a bland environment and faced with only a handful of stimuli. These stimuli thus grab the subject’s attention easily and thus are very salient. This experimental technique had drawn criticism, alleging that these conditions did not reflect the real world, and that data from the real world would not support the conclusions made. However, Taylor and Fiske argued in 1978 that even when faced with multiple stimuli at once in noisy environments, people are more likely only to pay attention to and act on the most salient ones “with little thought.”2
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. Often, this overestimation leads to our detriment. When trying to make a decision, we will think of the factors that occur to us first and more prominently, thereby using the availability heuristic. For example, following the September 11 attacks in New York, people opted to travel by road rather than air. This switch was because they were now afraid of terrorist hijacks, even though road travel is statistically more dangerous. This led to an additional 1,000 motor accidents that year.8
Since salient events are what attracts the most attention even in public, we don’t realize that the vast majority of events aren’t as prominent. This can influence our perception of success. Consider two different kinds of careers: a scientific researcher and a financial salesperson. The average day, or even month, of the researcher, consists of mostly failures – finding where to not look – or unsensational discoveries. On the other hand, the salesperson gains a constant income of commissions and gets frequently praised for their achievements at work. The researcher’s work is very useful to other researchers, but getting obvious, immediate, and steady results like the salesperson do is attractive to an ordinary person. Taleb, who proposed this thought experiment, writes that people engaged in the first type of activity get judged, even humiliated, in society for not delivering salient results of the second type; we’re not able to accommodate “heroes who focus on process rather than results” in our mental map. Consider a similar example that occurs within the same field – a new filmmaker choosing whether to make advertisements as a stable, reliable job versus investing time, money, and risk into making her own movie. Salience can cause us to only deem certain kinds of pursuits – and people – as successful and worthy.7
Media and flight fear
The media particularly thrives on making certain pieces of information as salient as possible. We get attracted to these programs and articles as a result, but they influence how we see the world too. A 2010 study investigated the effect of viewing certain media on individuals’ perception of air travel. It has been proven that air travel is several times safer than automobile travel, but the sensationalized presentation of flight accidents in the news and popular media has made them seem like a much bigger deal than they are statistically. The study found that the more time people spent consuming information about a historical aircraft accident, the more anxious and fearful they felt about issues like heights, crashes, hijacks, turbulence, and flying over water on their next potential flight.9
When driving a car, rapid acceleration and having high-speed wheel revolutions burns a lot of additional fuel. Therefore, repeated and aggressive braking and acceleration is much less fuel-efficient than moving at a constant speed. Since the mid-2000s, many cars have had an “ECO” indicator on the dashboard that lights up when the car is moving at a pace that maximizes mileage. Most drivers know that hard acceleration affects fuel economy, but seeing that green light turn on makes the fact much more salient, and we are thus more likely to keep driving at a pace that turns the light on.10
Related TDL Content
Would you rather pick a bleach that claims to kill 95% of all germs or one that admits that 5% of germs survive? The framing effect is how our preferences are influenced by the way in which information is presented. 5% of germs survive with both bleaches, but the second phrase is framed to make the surviving germs much more salient and is thus unappealing. Check out this article to see how salience interplays with the framing effect in influencing our decisions.
Salience and the availability heuristic often go hand in hand, because things that stand out to us are easily recallable. This piece on the availability heuristic details the potentially harmful consequences of relying on it for decisions, and how its awareness can help us avoid fallacious decisions and unintentional discrimination.
- Heider, Fritz (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations(1st ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons
- Taylor, S. E., & Fiske, S. T. (1978). .Salience, Attention, and Attribution: Top of the Head Phenomena. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 11, 249-288. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60009-X
- Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability.” Cognitive Psychology 5, no. 2 (1973): 207–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(73)90033-9.
- 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
- Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed.). Mcgraw-Hill Book Company.
- Taleb, N. N. (2010). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House
- Wang, Wei; Cole, Shu; and Chancellor, Charles, “Media’s Impact on People’s Anxiety Levels toward Air Travel” (2016). Travel and Tourism Research Association: Advancing Tourism Research Globally. 14. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/ttra/2010/Visual/14