Objects Within Reach Grab Attention

A new paper compares responses to pictures of objects to the real thing.

Posted Feb 27, 2018

Association for Psychological Science
Source: Association for Psychological Science

Chances are, you spend a lot of time staring at screens. You look at a lot of pictures and watch a lot of videos.  These visual experiences are so vivid that it doesn’t seem that much different than looking at real objects that are there in the room with you. Indeed, people buy a lot of products just based on what they look like in images.

Even psychologists generally don’t make much of the difference between objects and pictures of objects. Most psychology experiments (particularly with adults) use pictures on a computer screen or videos of scenes. 

This makes sense, of course.  Showing pictures ensures that every participant in a study sees exactly the same image. This control reduces variability in performance that is not related to the psychological factors of interest in the study.

An interesting paper by Michael Gomez, Rafal Skiba, and Jacqueline Snow in the February 2018 issue of Psychological Science suggests that there are some interesting differences between pictures and real objects, particularly when the objects are close enough to be touched.

These researchers explored the degree to which objects capture attention using a well-known experimental procedure called the flanker task. In the flanker task, a central object is shown with distracter objects on either side (the flankers).  Participants are supposed to make a judgment about the central object.

In the first study, for example, the central object was a spoon with a handle facing left or right. Participants press a button with their left hand if the handle is facing left and a button with their right hand if the handle is facing right. Above and below the central object are two other spoons. They are either facing in the same direction as the central one or in the opposite direction from it.

The typical finding in flanker tasks is that when the flanking objects would get the same response as the central object, then people respond faster than when the flanking objects would get a different response from the central object. That is, when the flanking objects are congruent with the middle object, responses are faster than when the flanking objects are incongruent. This difference in speed is called the flanker effect. The flanker effect suggests that people cannot completely ignore the flanker objects and focus just on the central object when making a response.

In the first study, the researchers compared a condition in which participants saw pictures of spoons with a second condition in which participants saw real spoons mounted on a board with magnets. The objects were shown about an arm’s length away from participants. Exposure to the pictures or objects was controlled by having the participants wear special goggles that opened and closed to show participants what was in front of them.

The interesting finding in this study was that the flanker effect was much larger for real objects than for the pictures. That is, the difference in response time between the congruent and incongruent flankers was much larger for real spoons than for pictures of spoons. A second study used 3D images rather than flat pictures. The real objects also showed a larger effect of the flankers than the 3D images.

So, do all real objects capture attention in this way? In another study, the objects were moved further away from the participant, so that they were not within reach. In this case, the size of the flanker effect was the same for real objects and for pictures. In yet another study, the real objects were shown close by but were presented behind a glass barrier, so that they could not be reached. Again, the size of the flanker effect was the same for real objects and for pictures.

This set of findings suggests that what really captures attention is whether the object can be grasped and manipulated.

This set of findings fits with a broad line of research inspired by the work of the perception psychologists JJ Gibson. He pointed out that a crucial function of vision is to provide you with the information you need to manipulate the objects in your environment. This set of findings also reinforces that—while pictures can be very vivid—they are not quite the same as the real thing.


Gomez, M.A., Skiba, R.M., & Snow, J.C. (2018). Graspable objects grab attention more than images do. Psychological Science, 29(2), 206-218.