“Zigzag when everyone else is jagging” is a saying often used in marketing. It also perfectly captures the simplicity of the brain’s attention system.
The impetus to pay attention comes from one of two places: within us or outside of us. Neuroscientists call this endogenous or exogenous. Marketers need to know how to handle these two forms of attention.
Endogenous attention is what you use when shopping with a shopping list in hand. Your main goal is to find the items on the list. In this case, what you are looking for is directed internally (the endo in endogenous means “coming from within”). This is endogenous attention.
Now imagine going to the mall to kill time and have a look around. In this case, you have no internal goal. Instead, the things you pay attention to are generally turned outwards (exo means exogenous “coming from the outside”) depending on what strikes you. This is exogenous attention, the primary form of attention marketers need to optimize.
Advertising, branding, and attention-grabbing content work best when optimized for exogenous attention. Getting exogenous attention means tapping into what we, the brain, naturally pay attention to: change.
The brain’s emphasis on change makes evolutionary sense. Survival does not depend on absorbing and experiencing one hundred percent of our environment. In fact, constant attention to every detail would ultimately affect our chances of survival.
Instead, survival depends on acting quickly, and our brains have evolved to process just enough perceptual information to be able to act. Is this berry a fruit I’ve eaten before or something new and possibly poisonous? It’s not necessary to see every pigment in the berry just to see if it continues or breaks my established pattern of safe-to-eat berries.
Learning patterns help save time and energy. Conversely, breaking these patterns will lead to attention being drawn. This “pattern breaking” tactic works by using the brain’s exogenous attention to literally reach a consumer’s thought portion.
In the visual realm, the brain is biased to pay special attention to high-contrast objects – white versus black, yellow versus red, and so on. Lines and contours can also create high contrast. In fact, there are different systems in the brain that prioritize high-contrast information.
Studies with children who are only a few days old have shown that high-contrast stimuli are consistently preferred. And eye-tracking work for adults has shown that high-contrast areas can predict where people will look with an accuracy of 85 percent.
User experience designers are very familiar with the attraction of the brain to contrasts and integrate them intelligently. The most likely (or sometimes the most preferred by the designer) option uses contrast to grab attention. Think of the SAVE buttons on documents, cancel out on logout screens, or log on to homepages.
Keen marketers have internalized this over time. Jamie Mustard, author of The Icons: The Art and Science of Excellence, knows this naturally. When asked for attention, he intuitively describes exogenous attention, albeit in different words. “A magnetic force plays a role in a traffic sign or a warning sign. The innate laws behind their design explain how anyone can, at will, demand irrefutable attention to any offer in business, art, or science. “
In summary, the brain outside of our consciousness is constantly learning the patterns in the environment. In the course of a lifetime, brains internalize many such patterns, and these patterns form the backdrop, if you will, the peaks of the consumer of our world. To get attention, marketers need to creatively break these patterns.
In other words, zigzag when everyone is zigzagging.