We live in an attention economy, and our attention is limited,” said Assistant Professor Milica Mormann. “Importantly, it is the step that leads a manager or consumer toward an action,” she says. In their multidisciplinary research, Mormann and her co-author reveal how attention is operating to influence economic choices.

“There is very little empirical research about attention because it is hard to measure,” Mormann said. “We know we have about eight seconds to deliver a message on social media or in a TV ad, but we do not know exactly how attention operates, in spite of studies.”

In early 2018, Mormann was invited to present her work at a New York University workshop, with a select global group of trailblazing cognitive and economic scientists. The paper “The Role of Salience and Attention in Choice Under Risk: An Experimental Investigation” is under review.

Mormann and her co-author conducted three experiments using a combination of lottery choices and eye-tracking data to test the role of “salience” and attention in risky choice. They tested whether economic salience, seeing something as having more value, affects risk-taking. They found that a decision- maker is more willing to take a risk when a lottery’s upside (i.e., potential gain) is economically salient than when its downside (i.e., potential loss) is salient. Manipulating the economic salience of payoffs has a sizeable effect on risk-taking and ultimately influences choice.

“Visual features, like bold or red-highlighted values, magnify economic salience; which then motivates behavior.”

Additionally, the authors tested how visual salience affects risk-taking. Mormann’s earlier research has shown that subjects fixate longer on visually salient items, as defined by color, contrast and orientation. Visual features may affect how a person allocates attention, but the effects on risk-taking were unclear.

When the gains of the lottery were made visually salient and subjects thus focused on them, they were more likely to make a risky choice. This visual salience translated into offering them $7 of economic value, or a 6 percent increase in risk-taking from the control condition to the gain treatment. “We quantified the exact increase in salience in dollar terms,” Mormann said.

“We found that economic salience is multiplied by visual salience. Visual features, like bold or red-highlighted values, magnify economic salience, which then motivates behavior.” Attention matters.