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The Seven Triggers to Capture and Maintain Attention

This article was based on the Talks at Google, “Captivology – The Science of Getting People’s Attention,” by Benn Parr.


Ben Parr: “Captivology” | Talks at Google



Captivology is the science behind who and what we decide to pay attention to.  This science can also be utilised to understand how to capture the attention of others.   In his Captivology research, Benn Parr was involved with over 1,000 research studies and interviews with people across a variety of industries.

Attention can be broken into three stages, similar to building a bonfire.  You start with the spark or the immediate attention. Next you add the logs, which correlates to the short-attention. Finally, you fan the flames, which represents the long attention.  In order to make the attention fire you built sustainable, you need to go through the seven captivation triggers that work to capture attention from immediate attention through to long attention.


1. Automaticity

Our subconscious is filled with associations that guide where our attention is directed.  For example, the colour red is associated with romantic notions, which causes us to feel that people wearing red are better looking than others not wearing red.

The immediate attention is an automatic response to different stimuli based on contrast and association. Contrast is the contrast something has with its surroundings and association relates to the associations we have with certain stimuli such as colours, symbols, and sounds based on our cultural history, biology, and other factors.


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2. Framing

Framing is how we pay attention to things that fall in our frame of reference.  It is also why we may not pay attention to things that are outside of our frame of reference.  When you can change people’s frame of reference, you can get them to pay attention to things they previously ignored or didn’t want to discuss.  Sometimes you must adapt to your audience’s frame of reference to reframe the conversation.

Frames of reference and framing are incredible powers that allow us to pay attention to certain things and not others, based on our individual experiences and worldviews.  One of the best ways to change frames of reference is to create scarcity. Science shows that we assign a higher value to things we feel are scarce, specifically when we believe that something is scarce due to outside circumstances.


3. Disruption

We pay attention to the things that violate our expectations. In one study, researchers wanted to see what made different things stay in the memory longer.  They gave people a number of sentences and found that people had a better memory for the more bizarre sentences. This is known as the bizarreness effect.

The reason we remember oddities better is because of what is called the violations expectancy theory.  We turn our attention to something that violates our attention because we have to protect ourselves in order to determine whether or not there is a threat. Originally, when we were hunters and gatherers, our attention was always scanning and looking for things that were out of place.


4. Reward

What is important in capturing our attention, is our desire for something. We pay attention to something when we desire a reward, whether it is intrinsic or extrinsic. Extrinsic rewards are things that are very clear and easy to define, like money, food, and objects of value. They capture our attention in the short term.  Intrinsic rewards capture our attention for the long term, but they are more conceptual, like self-satisfaction and purpose. You need both types of rewards to capture and maintain attention; you can’t succeed with just use one or the other to create motivation.


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5. Reputation

Directed deference is a phenomenon that when people are presented with an expert, they will defer to the expert even if the advice is incorrect. This reputation trigger is built on our trust of reputable sources, authority figures, collective knowledge, and most of all experts. In fact, if someone puts on a doctor’s coat and you tell him it’s a doctor’s coat, he will do better at the tasks you tell him to do. If you tell him it’s a painter’s coat, he will do fewer tasks and make more mistakes. The mere perception of expertise is enough to increase attention.


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6. Mystery

There are two scientific reasons why mysteries capture our attention.  The first is the Zeigarnik effect which states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. The second is that we don’t like uncertainty in our lives. We are compelled to relieve the uncertainty, and this is called the uncertainty reduction principal. When we can’t relieve the uncertainty, we start filling it in with our own theories and speculation.  


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You can use these mysteries to create suspense and capture attention.  The more moment to moment suspense we feel, the more we are paying attention and the more we are likely to remember the situation.


7. Acknowledgment

Acknowledgment is the most powerful of all the captivation triggers. There is a powerful correlation between acknowledgement and the connection people feel. What this means is that we pay attention to those who pay attention to us.  These are the people who provide us with validation, empathy, and understanding.


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One of the reasons we pay attention to celebrities is because they are in a way a reflection of ourselves and symbolise a piece of our identity.  We are looking for things that validate our identity in some way. This is an example of what is called the parasocial relationship. It is our capability to feel a two-way relationship with a one-way figure.

You can build relationships and gain attention through the sway and the power of participation that creates a sense of acknowledgment. When you enable participation, you allow people to provide their input and receive validation.


Using the Seven Triggers

All of these triggers flow through all of the stages of attention. It is not enough to just get people to pay attention to you; you need them to become customers, users, and fans. The seven captivation triggers make up the process you need to help capture and retain the attention of friends, colleagues, customers, fans, and even strangers. These triggers spark our brain’s attention response systems by appealing to the fundamental aspects of human nature to keep your product, brand, or idea top of mind.


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