New Study Shows We’re Far More Distracted By Positive Images Than Negative Ones

If you’re in advertising, the results of a new study may change the way you approach your next ad campaign.

And if you’re not, the findings are still pretty interesting and say a lot about human psychology.

Researchers at University College London discovered that images associated with pleasure or winning attract attention away from demanding tasks, while equally intense negative images and those associated with losing can be fully ignored.

Meaning, it’s easy to blissfully tune out the bad stuff.

For the purpose of the study, 51 participants completed tasks that involved a search for ‘target’ items. When the search was simple, they were highly distracted by emotional images in general, whether positive or negative. When the search was more difficult and required a high focus of attention, people were able to completely ignore the negative images. The positive images, however, continued to be highly distracting.

Positive images included romantic scenes, happy faces, and neutral faces that were previously associated with winning points in a betting task. On the other hand, negative images included gory photographs, angry faces, and neutral faces that were previously associated with losing points in the betting task.

“If someone is busy, the best way to capture their attention is with something related to pleasure,” says study author Professor Nilli Lavie. “For example, adverts from charities often use images of suffering to encourage donations. Our study suggests that these images could be overlooked by people who are engaged in other activities such as using their phones, reading the newspaper, or forwarding their TV recordings to resume the program they were watching. To capture the attention from other activities, charities could consider using more positive images such as happy people whose lives have been improved by donations.”

The same effect was seen not only with positive images, but also with neutral images that were associated with winning in a betting game. Participants were provided with six neutral face images that were associated with different odds of winning or losing points. They were asked to choose between different pairs to maximize points. Throughout the 15-minute game, the patterns of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ faces were glaringly obvious; participants repeatedly chose faces with high odds of winning and low odds of losing.

Makes sense.

“The attention-grabbing power of images associated with winning meaningless points is staggering,” says Professor Lavie. “While people were able to ignore graphic images of mutilated bodies during the more difficult task, neutral, expressionless faces associated with winning still distracted them. People appear to be tuned to the prospects of winning. This could suggest a new way of marketing as any neutral image such as a brand logo can be used to capture attention, if the consumer is offered to play in some betting game and the image is associated with winning.”

The study also reveals we could be innately positive thinkers, focusing more on pleasure-seeking instead of on potential threats and harm to ourselves and others.

While it’s not exactly ideal to ignore images of pain and suffering of other people (especially if there’s something you can do to help their cause), a focus on threats and what could go wrong can lead to anxiety. When it comes to your job, for example, you’re in a much better spot if your focus remains on the reward of a bonus than on the threat of being fired.

In terms of advertising and marketing, perhaps we should flip the whole ‘pulling of heartstrings in an appeal for sympathy’ tactic on its head. Instead of images of pain, suffering, or looming disasters (for example, with an environmental campaign), it may prove more effective to focus on progress and positive change.