The Influence of Salience on Choice

ABSTRACT - An experiment using a lottery game was conducted to determine whether salience alone could increase the probability that a particular alternative was chosen. It was found that subjects were over four times more likely to choose an alternative which stood out perceptually from the others, even though the payoffs in the game were determined by chance. This result supports the view that perceptual salience may be a common mechanism behind a wide variety of marketing and merchandising techniques.


Robert M. Schindler and Michael Berbaum (1983) ,"The Influence of Salience on Choice", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 416-418.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 416-418


Robert M. Schindler, Northeastern University

Michael Berbaum, Brandeis University


An experiment using a lottery game was conducted to determine whether salience alone could increase the probability that a particular alternative was chosen. It was found that subjects were over four times more likely to choose an alternative which stood out perceptually from the others, even though the payoffs in the game were determined by chance. This result supports the view that perceptual salience may be a common mechanism behind a wide variety of marketing and merchandising techniques.


It takes little more than a drive along a few local streets or highways to observe the large billboards, store signs, flashing neon lights, etc. that marketers use to attract the driver's attention. Once inside a store, the consumer is confronted by a wide variety of brightly colored, distinctive packages (Margulies 1969; Schwartz 1971). Marketers often attempt to further attract attention by locating their products on shelves which are at eve level (Progressive Grocer 1971) and attempt to obtain a maximum amount of shelf space (Curhan 1973). And, whenever possible, point-of-purchase displays are used and are often extremely effective (Chevalier 1975; Mason and Mayer 1981).

Such attention-getting techniques seem especially common for products and services for which consumers perceive much similarity between the alternatives. For example, the traveler often lacks the relevant information to determine the relative desirability of the various roadside restaurants. And, many consumer packaged goods (e.g., soap pads, paper towels) elicit so little interest that the consumer is not motivated to become aware of the features that differentiate the many brands (Olshavsky and Granbois 1979).

This suggests a mechanism by which these familiar marketing practices may be influencing consumer behavior. A store with an attention-getting roadside sign, or a brand with a distinctive package will be more salient than the other alternatives and will thus be more likely to be the first alternative to catch the consumer's attention. If consumers see few meaningful differences between the various alternatives, it is plausible that they will often make the easier choice and select the first alternative that they notice. If there is indeed this tendency to choose the most salient of otherwise similar alternatives, then salience would be identified as being a common mechanism behind a wide variety of marketing techniques.

The present study was an attempt to determine if such an effect of salience on decision making could be demonstrated in a controlled situation. To create a situation where a choice must be made from a set of similar alternatives, we developed a lottery game where the choice involved selecting one of 9; numbers printed on a page. Since the winner of each game was determined by a totally random process, there were no features or the alternatives that were relevant to the outcome of the choice. Choosing one number resulted in the same likelihood or winning as choosing any other number.

To create a salient alternative among the 25 numbers on a page, we made the numerals of one of the numbers on each page either much darker or much lighter than the other 24. Our hypothesis was that respondents would select the salient number more often than would be expected by chance.



One hundred and three undergraduate business students at Northeastern University served as subjects in this study. The students were run in groups of approximately 25, and two students in each group received small prizes.


Each subject received a booklet containing two sets of 25 pages, the two sets separated by a yellow sheet. A cover sheet on the booklet displayed the game's name, "Mark-It."

Each of the 50 sheets in the two sets contained a 5-by-5 matrix with a number in each space. One or the numbers on each page was made salient by being either darker than the other 24 (see Figure 1) or lighter than the other 24 (see Figure 2). In half of the sets, the salient numbers were darker than the others, while in the other sets, the salient numbers were lighter than the others. For 52 subjects, the set with the darker salient numbers was first and for the other 51 subjects, the set with the lighter salient numbers was first.





A different number was salient on each of the 25 pages in a set. The order of pages within each set was random.


The rules of Mark-It were explained carefully to the subjects, and then each was given a booklet and a wide tipped marker. Each subject selected one number on each page ("any one you want") and indicated his or her choice by putting a line through that number. The experimenter paced the group through each of the 25 pages in 2 set.

After completing a set, the subjects turned back to the first page in that set. The experimenter then selected a random number between 1 and 75 by picking one of 25 numbered balls from a rotating drum and called out that number. Any subject who had marked the called number on the first sheet in the set received a point. Then the subjects turned to the second page in the set, a new random number was drawn, and any subjects who had marked that number received a point. This continued until one subject received two points. That person received a small prize, and the entire procedure was repeated with the second set in the booklet.


Table 1 shows the probability of each number being chosen when it was the salient alternative on the page compared with the probability that it was chosen when it was a nonsalient alternative on a page. [Since there were no systematic differences between the page sets where darker numbers were salient and those where lighter numbers were salient, the data from both types of sets are combined in the subsequent analyses.] It can be seen rom Table 1 that each of the 25 numbers showed a higher probability of being chosen when it stood out from the others on that page than when it was a nonsalient alternative. Overall, the probability of a salient number being chosen was 0.163. If chance alone were operating, the mean probability of any particular alternative being, chosen would be 0.04. Thus, these results indicate that an alternative that stands out perceptually from the others is over four times more likely to be chosen than chance would predict.

The results also indicated that this tendency to choose the salient alternative was reliable over subjects. Since each subject made 50 choices, the expected number of times a salient number would be chosen, given chance alone, would be 2 per subject. However, 72% of the subjects chose 3 or more salient numbers, and for all subjects, the mean number of salient alternatives chosen was 8.17 per subject. This mean was significantly greater than 2 (t(102) = 6.18, p<.001).

When the responses of all subjects are arrayed by the number of consecutive choices of a salient number, a bimodal distribution results. Eleven percent of the subjects chose the salient number on ten or more consecutive pages. These subjects could be said to be "loyal" to the salient alternative. None of the remaining subjects showed a run of consecutive salient choices any longer than five. By applying the same criterion of 10 consecutive choices, the data show that another 13% of the subjects were "loyal" to a particular number or position in the matrix) or to an alternation between a pair of numbers (or positions). Thus, a total of 24% of the subjects tended to be loyal to either the salient alternative on a page or to a particular number or pair of numbers.



The 76% or the subjects who did not show loyalty did, however. reliably over-choose the salient alternative. They showed a mean number of salient choices of 5.84 per subject, which is significantly greater than 2 per subject (t(78) = 7.85, p<.001). Aside from not showing long runs of consecutive choices of the salient number or a particular number or number pair, there was no obvious pattern to their responses. Only 3% of the subjects never chose a salient alternative.


The present results indicate that consumers show a tendency to choose the most salient of otherwise similar alternatives, even if the outcomes of the choice are unrelated to the features which cause the salient alternatives to stand out. In the particular choice task studied, it was found that making one of 25 alternatives perceptually salient quadrupled the chances of that alternative being chosen. This implies that large sales increases can result simply from making a product or brand stand out from among its alternatives, and supports the possibility that salience is a common mechanism behind a wide range of marketing and merchandising techniques.

While the present results do not explain how salience affects choice, the findings of loyal and nonloyal consumers suggests that there is more than one mechanism involved. The present results confirm Tucker's (1964) finding that a substantial proportion of consumers will show loyalty to a particular alternative even when there are no objective differences between the alternatives. The loyal consumers in the present study may have perceived a nonexistent advantage of a certain alternative or may have repeatedly chosen the salient alternative or the alternative in a particular position simply to make the choice task easier. Whichever is the case, the present findings indicate that salience is an attribute that many consumers will choose to be loyal to.

The nonloyal consumers may have produced their unpatterned choices due to a need for variety or a desire to avoid boredom (Berlyne 1963). If it is presumed that for many of these consumers a "variety" means an even mixture of each type of alternative, it is likely that the alternative which is salient will be included in this mixture since its salience will lead it to be perceived as one of the possible alternative types. Moreover, since people have difficulty keeping in mind at one time more than seven distinct types (Miller 1956), then the salient alternative should be chosen about 1/7th or the time, or about 7 times per 50 choices. This agrees relatively well with the 5.84 salient choices per 50 choices shown by the nonloyal subjects in the present study, and thus lends support to the view that need for variety is one mechanism responsible for the bias toward a salient item in choice from a set of otherwise similar alternatives.

An important goal of future research on salience and choice would be to determine the range of choice situations in which the salience or an alternative plays a significant role. in addition to affecting those choices where consumers perceive few meaningful differences between the alternatives, salience may also influence decisions in which the alternatives are highly differentiated, since salience may influence the selection or the alternatives themselves (Soelberg 1967).

Further research may also connect the effects or salience on choice with the effects of vividly presented information on judgment (Taylor and Thompson 1982). In particular, Kisielius and Sternthal (1982) have proposed that information which evokes cognitive elaboration is more "available" in memory (Tversky and Kahneman 1973) and thus is more likely to influence judgment. Future research could explore the possibility of a common mechanism behind the effects of salience on choice and the effects of availability on the internal choice of which pieces of information to use in arriving at a judgment.

Thus, while it is clear that a great deal of research on salience and choice remains to be done, the rewards of such work could be rich, having the potential to increase our understanding of many aspects or consumer decision making


Berlyne, Daniel E. (196-3), "Motivational Problems Raised by Exploratory and Epistemic Behavior," In S. Koch (Ed.) Psychology: A Study of a Science, Vol. 5. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Chevalier, Michel (1975), "Increase in Sales Due to In-Store Displays," Journal of Marketing Research, 12, 426-31.

Curhan, Ronald C. (1973), "Shelf Space Allocation and Profit Maximization in Mass Retailing," Journal of Marketing, 37, 54-60.

Kisielius, Jolita and Sternthal, Brian (1982), "When and How Vividness-Affect Judgment: An Information Availability Interpretation," unpublished manuscript, University of Michigan.

Margulies, Walter P. (1969), "Color it Motivational," Advertising Age (October 13), 69.

Mason, Joseph B. and Mayer, Morris L. (1981), "Modern Retailing: Theory and Practice, Revised Edition, Plano, Texas: Business Publications, Inc.

Miller, George A. (1956), "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information," Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Olshavsky, Richard W. and Granbois, Donald H. (1979), "Consumer Decision Making - Fact or Fiction?" Journal of Consumer Research, 6, 93-100.

Progressive Grocer (1971), "How In-Score Merchandising Can Boost Sales," (October), 94-97.

Schwartz, David (1971), "Evaluating Packaging," Journal or Advertising Research, 11, 99-32.

Soelberg, Peer O. (1967), "Unprogrammed Decision Making," Industrial Management Review, 8, 19-29.

Taylor, Shelley E. and Thompson, Suzanne C. (1982), "Stalking the Elusive 'Vividness' Effect," Psychological Review, 89, 155-181.

Tucker, William T. (1964), "The Development of Brand Loyalty," Journal of Marketing Research, 1, 32-35.

Tversky, Amos and Kahneman, Daniel (1973), "Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability," Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232.



Robert M. Schindler, Northeastern University
Michael Berbaum, Brandeis University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10 | 1983

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