Salience: what is it and how does it work?

Today I want to talk about: salience.

Salience is an idea I’ve struggled to wrap my head around, but I the more I think about it, the more I realize how important it is.

Salience is how prominent a piece of information is. Salient information is clear and obvious. If something is salient, then it stands out from everything else. A black sheep amongst a herd of white sheep is salient.

To illustrate this, take a look at these two photos:

I’m going to take a wild guess: the first thing you noticed was the piece of kale lodged in each man’s teeth. Our attention is immediately drawn to it. But did you see the extra woman’s extra finger in the first photo? How about the fact that the man in the second photo is missing an ear?

Salience Bias

This is known as the Salience Bias: humans have a tendency to focus on the most obvious information and ignore less obvious information.

From an evolutionary perspective, this is a great thing. It allows us to quickly intuit our way through information. But our modern world has seen exponential increases in the amount of information available to us; and, as a result, we find ourselves staring down the barrel of the following dilemma: how are we supposed to sort through all of this information? How do we best navigate a seemingly endless sea?

Our attention is limited—there is an upper bound to the amount of information that we can process. We can only pay attention to a limited number of things. Our brains account for this by focusing on what is salient and ignoring what is not salient.

In the above photos, our attention is quickly drawn to the kale amongst the pearly whites, and we miss other relevant information like an extra finger or a missing ear.

Häagen-Dazs: Leveraging Salience

Marketers have known the value of salience for years. Marketing is a manipulation of perceptions, and marketers understand that highlighting certain information will increase it’s salience.

In the late 2000’s, Häagen-Dazs launched a new product called Häagen-Dazs Five. It had only five ingredients and was meant to cater towards people who don’t like to eat processed foods. The ingredients were listed prominently on the front of the package: Milk, Cream, Sugar, Eggs, Cocoa.

What’s interesting about this is: the original flavors of Häagen-Dazs ice cream are also made from only five ingredients. They are—in fact—the exact same five ingredients: Cream, Milk, Sugar, Eggs, Cocoa.

What’s going on here? Sure, the Häagen-Dazs Five does have fewer calories and less fat, but this is because less cream is used, not because there are only five ingredients. The marketing department at Häagen-Dazs changed the salience and created a whole different product. When we buy Häagen-Dazs Five, we’re buying the idea of simplicity.

It’s changes to salience like this that create consumer perceptions of differences in brand. Marketers understand how important the idea of salience is and devote plenty of resources towards making the right information salient.

How can we use Salience Bias?

Our brain relies upon mental shortcuts (sometimes called heuristics) to process vast amounts of information. This is a good thing, as helps us make quick decisions and save our brain power for the more important decisions.

We will never be able to completely rid our thinking of biases, nor would we want to, as we would have to spend precious attentional and cognitive resources for even the most minute of tasks. What we can do is this: safeguard our thinking to encourage better decision making.

There are a couple of different ways we should be thinking about how to use salience:

  1. Using salience to align our actions with our intentions
  2. Using salience to communicate meaningful information

Using salience to align our actions with our intentions

Because we experience everything in the present moment, the most salient aspects of our decision making do not always align with our goals.

For example, many of us care about the climate and want to conserve energy and water where possible. But, the benefits of conservation are not exactly salient. When we’re taking a shower, the most salient aspects of showering are the water temperature and the duration of the shower. This leads many of us to take longer, hotter showers, even though this may not align with our desire to conserve water or energy.

In one study on the topic, a group of researchers actually installed shower meters that gave people real-time feedback on their water consumption while they were in the shower. They found that the installation of these shower meters reduced water consumption by 22-percent.

What’s happening here is quite simple: the shower meter makes the cost of resource consumption more salient. And when things become more salient, we pay more attention to them and adjust our behavior accordingly. Interventions like these introduce real-time feedback into our world and help us align our actions with our intentions.

Using salience to communicate meaningful information

There is an art to the presentation of information, and what this notion of salience reminds us is that: people will focus on the most prominent information and ignore everything else.

When we are presenting information to others, we need to be thinking about what the most salient aspect of the information is. We need to position the most meaningful information as the most salient information, because if we fail to adequately highlight important information, then people will overlook it.

An informational framework

Salience might seem like an abstract and convoluted idea, but I think it provides a useful framework for understanding how information is transmitted.

When we’re trying to decipher information, it’s important to understand how salience bias might highlight specific attributes of the information. We won’t always be able to break information down into its component parts, but we work to be more aware of how salience affects our decision making. We won’t always see the missing ear in the advertisement for floss, but we can work to understand how our brains process information and build better margins of safety.

When we’re trying to communicate with others or present meaningful information, we can think about how salient our primary message is. And we can understand that the way we manipulate salience can have massive effects on retention of material.

Brownie points for anyone who uses the word salient in a conversation this week. Thanks for reading.

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