100 Things You Should Know About People: #20 — Your Attention Is Riveted By Pictures Of People

Picture of a baby looking right at the camera Second only to movement (animation, video), pictures of a human face capture attention in any medium, including websites. Pictures of a human face not only capture attention, but keep the attention on that part of the screen even when the picture goes away.

We start young — With some creative experiments it has been proven that babies as young as 4 months old will look at pictures of other people more than pictures of other objects or of animals. And this preference for faces continues throughout the life span. It seems to be part of our brain wiring.

The eyes have it — Research using eye tracking shows that when you show people a picture of the face of a person, their attention goes mostly to the eyes. If you want to capture someone’s attention at a website, showing a picture of a person who is looking right into the camera captures the most attention.

Special unconscious brain processing — The latest research implies that there is a part of the brain that is focused on recognizing human faces, as well as interpreting the emotion that is on the human face. Fearful and angry faces get the most and quickest attention, but any face gets a lot of attention. The circuitry in the brain from this specialized spot is believe to go right to the amygdala, which processes emotions. So it is fast, since it doesn’t have to go through the normal route that most vision goes through (the cortex and conscious mind). This means that you are processing faces unconsciously.

You look where the eyes look — Some practitioners have been investigating whether where the eyes are looking in the picture affects where your eye looks when you look at the picture. James Breeze has an interesting blog post and some eye tracking data on this. The eye tracking data shows that if a web site has a picture of a person seemingly “looking” at a certain part of the screen or page, then the person viewing that picture will tend to look at the same spot.

Bottom line advice for your website — Use pictures to capture and hold attention at your website. For the most effect, use pictures that are close-up shots and where the person is looking right at the camera. If you want people to look at something in particular on the page besides the picture, then have the person in the photo “looking” at that spot on the page.

For more information, there is a research reference below, and also check out James Breeze’s blog post: http://usableworld.com.au/2009/03/16/you-look-where-they-look/

Jan Theeuwes and Stefan Van der Stigchel, “Faces capture attention”, Visual Cognition, Volume 13 , Issue 6,  April 2006 , pages 657 – 665.


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11 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #20 — Your Attention Is Riveted By Pictures Of People”

  1. Very interesting! I wonder if drawings of faces are as strong as photos? Cartoon faces? Animal faces? And then there are items which look like human faces. (Perhaps you’ve seen the clever commercial with a collection of these, such as a car which appears to be smiling.) I wonder if they work as well.

  2. Kyle and Linda W:

    Thanks for writing in. Yes, the face is very important. I don’t know about specific research about drawings vs. photos. I do know that research shows that non-human objects, such as cars, are more popular and memorable when they “look like” faces. For example, there is some research to show that the mini-cooper looks like a face from some angles, in fact, looks like a child’s or baby’s face, and is therefore liked and remembered better than other cars.

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