Think about all the things you see during a typical day. Your eyes are constantly taking in visual stimuli. But you don’t react to everything you see. A lot of it goes by without your brain or body reacting.
Yet certain things do produce an immediate and strong reaction. If you see something that’s potentially dangerous—a snake, fire, a dark shadow moving—your brain and body will react quickly.
If peripheral vision covers a bigger area than central vision, and if peripheral vision determines where you look, then it makes sense that peripheral vision is more sensitive to, and reacts faster to, images of danger than central vision. Dimitri Bayle and his team tested this idea.
A Test Of Fearful Faces
Imagine walking with our ancestors, thousands of years ago, in a grassy field. If you noticed out of the corner of your eye (your peripheral vision) that the person to your left suddenly made a fearful face, that information would likely have been useful to you and perhaps would have kept you alive.
People are particularly sensitive to the emotional faces of people around them, especially if the facial expression is one of surprise or fear.
Bayle (2011) and his team researched whether people recognized facial expressions faster and more accurately than other aspects of a face, such as gender, in peripheral vision.
When the brain analyzes and interprets a face, it uses the occipital and temporal lobes, including the special part called the fusiform facial area, which is most stimulated by central vision.
If being able to recognize that someone had a fearful facial expression would keep a person alive, Bayle hypothesized that these images would go through peripheral vision, right to the amygdala via a faster and more automatic sub-cortical route, rather than through the “regular” visual areas of the occipital and temporal lobes and the fusiform facial area through central vision.
The researchers used pictures of people with expressions of fear or disgust and measured how quickly the participants identified each. They also added a gender identification task, where participants had to identify whether a neutral face (showing no emotional expression) was a face of a man or woman. This neutral gender identification task was used as a control, to compare against the fear and disgust expressions. For all of the pictures, sometimes the participants saw the pictures in peripheral vision and sometimes in central vision.
Bayle’s hypotheses proved to be correct. People reacted to images of fearful expressions faster when they were shown in peripheral vision than when they were shown in central vision. They also processed disgust expressions more quickly in peripheral vision compared to central vision, but not as fast as the fear expressions. In the task where participants had to identify the gender of the image, there was no difference in reaction time between central and peripheral vision.
In addition to the faster reaction times for pictures with fear expressions, the participants could identify what they were looking at farther out in their peripheral field than with the pictures of disgust expressions or when identifying gender.
Design With Fear And Danger In Mind
Designers usually don’t intend to scare their target audience with their designs, but often they do want to grab viewers’ attention. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, there’s a tendency among designers to place very little information in viewers’ peripheral vision. If you want to grab attention quickly, and if it’s appropriate to the content and brand of what you’re designing, consider using emotional or dangerous images in peripheral vision.
- To grab people’s attention quickly, place images that imply danger in their peripheral vision.
- To grab people’s attention quickly, show them pictures with strong emotional content in their peripheral vision.