Measurement Metric: Attention vs. Inattention

By Charlene Weisler

Attention is one of those measurement metrics that is important but difficult to quantify. What is attention? How is it measured? “Attention is more elusive than people realize,” noted Duane Varan, CEO, MediaScience, “similar to how we use the term engagement, which is often misused.” His firm recently partnered with Google to help answer some of attention’s unknowns. “Attention may be eyes on the screen … but not paying attention. Or looking away but actually listening,” he posited.


Varan believes that it is important to go back to basics and conducted an extensive literature review that underscored his belief that attention is heavily researched but there are still a lot of blind spots. “It is remarkable how little time is spent on inattention,” he added. To that end, Varan believes that inattention is not the same thing as low attention, especially when it comes to advertising. But the difference between passive and active attention is another matter. “Lean back attention is not a bad thing. It is relaxing,” he explained, “Same too for lean forward attention.” It may depend on the content being viewed. 


Using the standard neuroscience measurements like eye tracking to monitor for fixations per second, is eye moving or not, Varan started to identify the good stimuli in a test of 105 short video clips identifying the degrees of attention.


Claire Charron, Research Manager,Market Insights, Google offered the following conclusions:

  • Attention and inattention are two sides of the same coin.
  • The best way to capture attention is through inattention.
  • The absence of inattention is attention.
  • The most accurate measure is blink duration and this is not usually used. It is the time it takes to blink. It drives levels of inattention.
  • Fixations per session is another high measure.
  • So the two main measures of attention – blink duration and fixations per second – have to do with the eye.
  • In this test, “eyes on screen” didn’t have much variation because the test required participants to keep their eyes on the screen. So it is possible that in a natural setting, eyes on screen may supplant two metrics from lab test. At this point, we don’t know.
  • Other measures, such as alpha waves and heartbeat, also correlated with self-reported attention and also picked up inattention. But skin conductance only garnered a mild correlation.
  • All of this indicates that there is not much overlap between measures. Each contributes something different and which one you use depends on what you are trying to achieve.


“Attention is the absence of inattention,” concluded Varan, “And inattention can be accurately measured. Attention is not one kind. It is many kinds with many measures.”


The testing continues. Next step: apply to ads, and tease out different dimensions.




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