Donald Trump and the Attentional Blink

Two things happened this week that got me thinking…

Firstly there was the US Election result (blimey!) and secondly was learning more about a effect known as the Attentional Blink. It got me thinking could these be linked?

The Attentional Blink (Raymond et al, 1992) describes a phenomenon that occurs when the conscious mind is occupied with a task such as spotting a white letter in a sequence of briefly shown black letters. This occupation causes a blindspot for the conscious mind lasting typically 200 – 500ms immediately following display of the target letter.

But before delving further into the Attentional Blink, a short diversion into the World of

Love them or hate them, it’s hard to ignore them.



So what is a brand?

The simple answer: it’s complicated. In describing a brand, Paul Feldwick uses phrases such as “offers reassurance” and “creates good feelings of security and anticipation”.

Bangor Consumer Psychology Guru Professor James Intriligator talks of a “complex, abstract representation” encompassing “functional, sensory/perceptual and emotional qualities

Why are brands so important? From a consumer point of view, brands aid identification, reduce uncertainty and they can add value over a generic product. Lois Geller likens a brand to a promise.

Brands are also important for companies. Brands are valuable, saleable assets. In April, 2016, brewer AB InBev sold the Peroni and Grolsch brands. Although the exact figue was not released, the buyer had already offered £1.8bn ( As assets, brands play an important role in the value of a company and hence factors such as how easy the company can raise additional finance. In addition, brand strength can help a company’s resilience. For example in 2015, Marketing Week reported that the strength of the BBC brand would help the organisation weather the challenges it faced (

It’s also useful to identify how a brand is performing versus competitor brands – to give early warning of opportunities and threats.

measurementGiven the importance of a brand, measuring a brand objectively is vital, but how can this be done? Taking the earlier description, some factors are relatively easy to measure, such as functional qualities. For example, Google can measure how quickly it returns a search result or the proportion of users who click one result but then click a second result.

However sensory/perceptual and emotional qualities are more challenging to quantify.

Some work to assess these was done by Thomson et al in 2005. They took the approach of asking people to report on how they felt about a brand when they thought about it and their relationship with it.

These measures were taken as multi-item Likert scales, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) wherein respondents rated the extent of their agreement concerning how a particular brand makes them feel.

However, this approach relies on responses made by the conscious system 2 thinking when attempting to measure system 1 qualities such as perceptions and emotions.

Could there be a better way of measuring brand strength?

Research (Awh E et al, 2004) found that faces were not subject to (or ‘survived’) the Attentional Blink. Further work (Landau et al, 2008) tested a variety of objects, confirming this and proposing that perceptual salience of the faces was what enabled them to survive the Attentional Blink.

Professor James Intriligator extended this and hypothesised that the more familiar an object, the more likely it was to survive and tested this using a section of brand names. This research confirmed a correlation between the ability of a set of brands to survive the attentional blink and their sales figures. The Attentional Blink provided a possible means of assessing brand strength without involving a conscious rating method.

So what does this have to do with Donald Trump? The US election result came as a surprise compared with predictions from pollsters. Even as late as the eve of the election, the BBC reported that pollsters placed Clinton in a 4 point lead (

So why could the polls have got it wrong?

Research by Shiv et al (1999) suggest that if processing resources are limited, people tend to be influenced more by their emotions than more thought through choices. For undecided voters, faced with time pressures and difficult choices, these perceptual and emotional factors may form a more important part of the decision on who to vote for than rationalised processes.

If the polls are based on voters rational responses to questions about these political ‘brands’, rather than a measure of how strongly the voters see the candidates from an emotional and sensory/perceptual perspective then they may be missing an important influence on the voters decision – emotions and sensory/perceptual factors.

donald-trumpIf we consider Trump and Clinton as brands (nothing new, a more accurate poll method may have been to use the Attentional Blink method. By occupying the conscious decision processes, this method could be used to provide a more accurate measure of the relative strength of the 2 candidates/brands in voters minds. In addition, by applying this test to undecided voters on the run up to the election, accurate trends could be predicted and useful feedback gained.

This raises some ethical questions, as more accurate polls could themselves begin to influence the outcome.

Edit: The BBC have an interesting article published here discussing the ability of social media in prediction.


Raymond, J. E., Shapiro, K. L., & Arnell, K. M. (1992). Temporary suppression of visual processing in an RSVP task: An attentional blink?. Journal of experimental psychology: Human perception and performance, 18(3), 849.

Landau, A. N., & Bentin, S. (2008). Attentional and perceptual factors affecting the attentional blink for faces and objects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 34(4), 818.

Awh, E., Serences, J., Laurey, P., Dhaliwal, H., van der Jagt, T., & Dassonville, P. (2004). Evidence against a central bottleneck during the attentional blink: Multiple channels for configural and featural processing. Cognitive Psychology, 48(1), 95-126. [Accessed 11/11/16]

Exploding the Message Myth. (24/12/2013.). Retrieved November 12, 2016, from

Shiv, B., & Fedorikhin, A. (1999). Heart and mind in conflict: The interplay of affect and cognition in consumer decision making. Journal of consumer Research, 26(3), 278-292.

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