From Gist to Detail: How to Connect with Consumers in a Sea of Visual Information

12-minute read

The Speed of Visual Processing: Understanding Gist Recognition

As we walk through the town, it's not uncommon to see people engrossed in their smartphones. As I observe them, I often notice that many are scrolling through their screens at a rapid pace, occasionally stopping to read or watch something. Have you noticed this behavior as well?

Personally, I find myself doing the same thing, yet I am always amazed at the speed at which others can process and recognize information. But if you think about it, it's clear that in our daily lives, we are constantly and unconsciously processing visual information at a fast pace. When we're out and about, shopping or browsing content online, we need to recognize and process information quickly to move forward.

This raises the question: can we gain insight into consumer behavior by understanding how they process visual information in their daily lives? This is the topic we will explore in this blog.

Change Blindness: Why Specific Objects are Hard to Notice

Daily, we are constantly presented with scenes that contain a variety of elements, such as objects, people, and backgrounds. Even when presented with a complex scene, we can quickly perceive the gist of the situation. For example, in the photo above, it's easy to tell immediately that it’s a bedroom and to infer the atmosphere, such as European or feminine.

This ability to quickly recognize the gist of a scene is known as "gist recognition" in vision science. Research has shown that gist recognition is extremely fast. For example, a 1976 study already reported that it was possible to determine the presence of an object in a photo within 100 milliseconds, even when presented with a sequence of complex photos (Potter, 1976).

Later, a 1996 study found that participants were able to correctly detect the presence of an animal in a photograph within 50 milliseconds, with an accompanying effect on electrical brain activity observed during the same time period (Thorpe et al., 1996). These results were obtained even though each photo contained a variety of elements, such as trees, rivers, and the ground, making it difficult to detect the animal based on simple features such as color.

It's important to note that these results were obtained when the targets to be detected were specified in advance, hence the task could be performed by gist-level perception. In contrast, when participants were tested on their memory for sequentially presented pictures without prior specification of targets, the percentage of correct responses was extremely low, almost unremembered (Potter 1976). This suggests that perception of the gist, although very quick, is separate from whether it is remembered.

This would be consistent with the struggles of today’s marketers, who find it increasingly difficult to capture consumer engagement, especially when trying to reach them ambiguously without good creative.

Contextual Influences on Object Recognition

Thus far, we have discussed how quickly we can perceive the overall scene, or the gist. But what about the individual elements within the scene?

While we can quickly recognize the gist of a scene, recognizing specific objects and details within that scene can be a much more time-consuming and difficult task. For example, in the picture above, which is similar to (but slightly different from) the one seen earlier, it can be difficult to spot the difference without looking back at the previous page1. This phenomenon, known as "change blindness," is well-documented in the literature2.

For example, in a classic study by Palmer (1975), participants were presented with a line drawing of a kitchen (left side of the figure above), followed by a brief presentation of various objects (right side of the figure above). When participants were asked to name the objects immediately, a higher percentage of correct responses were obtained for objects that fit the context, such as bread (a), than for objects that were similar in shape but did not fit the context, such as a mailbox (b).

In this experiment, the contextual information (kitchen) was presented before the target object, but the same effects can be seen when they are presented simultaneously. When an object does not fit the overall context or gist, it takes extra time to determine what the object is, and the accuracy of the judgement is compromised (Biederman et al., 1974; Davenport and Potter, 2004).

Marketing Implication: How to Visually Connect with Consumers in the Fast-Paced World of Information

With the widespread use of smartphones and social media, consumers are now exposed to an enormous amount of information. This trend will only increase with further technological advances in the near future. However, with time being a finite resource, consumers will naturally seek to process and select information at a faster pace.

So, what can marketers do to ensure that their communications are noticed and remembered in this fast-paced environment?

First, it's important to keep in mind that people often forget what they see passively (the first experiment described above), so it's crucial that customers actively seek out your information. Also, it's more likely to be noticed if it fits the context. How to achieve this will vary by the industry, category, and whether you're an advertiser or platform provider. It's also important to emphasize context in in-store design and display.

Another strategy is to align your message with the customer's daily interests, increasing the likelihood that it will be noticed even when the customer isn’t actively looking for it (Gilson et al 1982). When personalization is not possible, incorporating current socio-cultural issues or trends that would be of interest to many of the target audience can also be effective.

It's also important to consider what consumers, as living organisms, instinctively perceive. For example, moving objects are more effective than still images, and emotion and the power of the face are extremely powerful, especially when the gaze is directed towards the consumer (Alpers et al. 2005).

Lastly, it's crucial to develop your brand’s visual assets such as logos, iconic cues (colors, shapes, celebrities, characters, etc.) that make your message immediately recognizable at a glance, like a gist.

These are just a few of the strategies marketers can use to reach consumers visually in today's fast-paced, information-rich environment. If there's a need for more, we'd be happy to delve deeper.


  1. The difference between the two photographs is the presence or absence of the picture on the wall in the top left-hand corner.
  2. See, for example, the following video as an example for general interest:


Alpers GW, Ruhleder M, Walz N, Muhlberger A, Pauli P. (2005). Binocular rivalry between emotional and neutral stimuli: A validation using fear conditioning and EEG. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 57, 25–32. 

Davenport JL, Potter MC (2004) Scene consistency in object and background perception. Psychological Science, 15: 559-564.

Gilson M, Brown EC, Daves WF (1982). Sexual orientation as measured by perceptual dominance in binocular-rivalry. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8, 494–500. 

Palmer SE (1975) The effects of contextual scenes on the identification of objects. Memory & Cognition, 3: 519-526.

Potter MC (1976) Short-term conceptual memory for pictures. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 2: 509-522.

Sareen P, Ehinger KA, Wolfe JM (2016) CB database: A change blindness database for objects in natural indoor scenes. Behavior Research Methods, 48: 1343-1348.

Thus, it's worth noting that the process of recognizing individual objects is different from the process of recognizing the scene gist. At the same time, however, it is also important to note that they are not completely unrelated. Recognizing the scene provides contextual information that can influence our ability to recognize individual objects within that scene.

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