I have found this article on the psychology of UX, and at the 10. bullet point the article points out the following statement!


"Research shows that people use peripheral vision to get the "gist" of what they are looking at. Eye tracking studies are interesting, but just because someone is looking at something straight on doesn't mean they are paying attention to it." - what research, because there is no link

Do you have any evidence of this? Or have you ever studied/examined/researched in this topic?

  • Regarding looking at things and not seeing them: our eyetracker will report fleeting fixations on text or graphics. But the user won't report seeing them.
    – PhillipW
    Jul 11, 2021 at 9:34

6 Answers 6


I think that the eye tracker results can be explained by Don Norman's book Emotional Design, where he speaks of the three aspects of design: visceral, behavioral and reflexive.

A good example is car driving: when you're learning, it's behavioral. You are being very careful of when and how you apply the brakes, both of your hands are firmly on the steering wheel, and you pay extra attention to signal lights. When you become an expert driver, your driving becomes reflexive: you know instinctively where the pedals are, and you can make a right turn as easily as you walk down the street. You are now able to change the FM station while driving, talk on your mobile phone or with a passenger, etc.

Web surfing starts behavioral and becomes reflexive. At first, you pay attention to everything on a web page, but then you get used to certain standards and you start surfing reflexively. That's why following certain standards is very important. I will bet that the developer that @Steve showed his website to was expecting a "call to action" button like one of these:

enter image description here

So he completely missed the text-based "Try it now" link because... it simply doesn't look like a button or even a link. It looks more like a headline. Making it bigger is not going to help because it will then look like, well, a bigger headline! At the reflexive level, it doesn't work. In fact, when I clicked on regexhero.net, my eyes were first attracted to the "Buy Regex Hero Professional" link because that looked more like a button:

enter image description here

  • 1
    Nice. Well designed and well placed call to action buttons are definitely effective. And you did a good job of addressing the question I think. Google Analytics has always shown very high conversion rates on Regex Hero, where people are clicking the try it now link. So I've never changed it. But it could always be better, and now I'm inspired to create a little A/B test out of it. Feb 15, 2011 at 19:38
  • I'd be very curious to see the results of an A/B test when you have them.
    – Hisham
    Feb 17, 2011 at 2:07
  • 1
    @Hisham - A high-confidence winner was found rather quickly. I let the test run for an extra 24 hours to be sure. In the end, Google Optimizer estimates a 47% improvement with the button. So I stopped the experiment and made the change. Thanks for the tip, man. Feb 17, 2011 at 18:26
  • My pleasure. :-)
    – Hisham
    Feb 17, 2011 at 18:36
  • 1
    -1 I think this answer mixes up completely different ideas to the point of making them useless and does not address the question asked.
    – Gala
    Jul 10, 2013 at 8:15

It seems the authors are making an implicit reference to the eye-mind hypothesis (see Google Scholar for literature references). In short, this means we can't assume that just because someone is looking at something they are paying attention to it -- this is why you need to set specific tasks in eye-tracking.

In terms of peripheral vision, the structure of the eye means that we can only attend to a small area of the screen -- about 5 degrees of visual angle at arms length. You can find more information by searching for fovea and visual acuity.

alt text

Image from Wikipedia: Fovea centralis


I can only reference a specific case of this.

I was showing a developer my site at regexhero.net and expected him to try out the app. The homepage design then was the same as it is now. There's a giant "Try it now" link that's left/center. It's bigger than any other element on the page. And yet, even though he was staring right at it, he didn't really read it and didn't know where to click.

He then told me that he has a problem with text. He skims, as most people do. But it's a rather extreme case. He'll tend to look for graphic elements, icons, etc, before actually reading anything.

  • Some people are now the opposite way though: They'll treat anything that's too big and obvious as an ad, and skim right past it without bothering to think about what they're looking at.
    – ehdv
    Feb 15, 2011 at 19:24

I have found an article on the topic finally: http://whatmakesthemclick.net/2010/01/23/

and here's the detailed research: http://journalofvision.org/content/9/10/6.full.pdf+html


There is a short answer, and a long answer.

The short answer is, a person can look directly at something, yet not be aware of it. That is referred to as the "looked but did not see" phenomenon. A famous example includes looking at (i.e., fixating) the gorilla in the "invisible gorilla" video (https://youtu.be/IGQmdoK_ZfY), but not reporting having noticed it [1]. About 50% of viewers typically fail to notice the Gorilla when they were given the task of counting passes made by players wearing white shirts (when they are given the task of counting passes by the players wearing black shirts, typically over 90% detect the gorilla)[1, 2]. Of those who failed to notice the gorilla, on average, they had fixated the gorilla for approximately 1 second [1]. A more real-world relevant example is that some professional airline pilots, flying simulated take-offs and landings, have failed to notice runway incursions during landings, even when looking at (i.e., fixating) the jet on the runway; this specifically happened when those pilots were using head-up displays with an runway path overlaid on top of the windscreen, which showed the incursion [3, 4]. Not all pilots had this problem, but a sizable proportion did.

For the longer answer, note that the question was whether a person could be looking at something but not be paying attention to it. But my short answer talked about awareness. Attention and awareness generally go together, but not always [5]. Likewise, where you are looking (i.e., fixating) and where you are attending tend to go together, but that varies over time within each fixation [6]. More generally, it is possible to fixate on one thing, but be attending to something else--that is called covert attention [7]. Nevertheless, if you send your eyes to something, before you move your eyes to it, you invariably first send your covert attention to it [8-10]. So, if you have fixated something (i.e., looked at it), we know that you have at least minimally covertly attended to it. But, in the case of, for example, the "invisible gorilla" experiment, you may have fixated the gorilla, perhaps because it was moving and captured your attention, but you may have almost immediately ignored it, because it was "black" and your task was to count the passes by the "white shirt" team. Likewise, for the airline pilots, they may have been fixating at or very near the jet incursion in their simulated runway, but they were paying attention to the overlaid head-up display of the runway path they were trying to follow. (This is related to the fact that we can fixate the same x,y location on a 2D image, but attend to different depth planes in it, such as closer versus farther way objects[11].)

Nevertheless, as a broad general statement, if you look at something, you attend to it; and if you attend to something you are generally aware of it. But the devil is in the details, and so we can also have "looked but did not see" phenomena.

Lester Loschky

research page: https://www.k-state.edu/psych/research/loschkylester.html

lab page: http://www.k-state.edu/psych/vcl/index.html


  1. Memmert, D., The effects of eye movements, age, and expertise on inattentional blindness. Consciousness And Cognition, 2006. 15(3): p. 620-627.
  2. Simons, D.J. and C.F. Chabris, Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception, 1999. 28(9): p. 1059-1074.
  3. Fischer, E. and R.F. Haines, Cognitive issues in head-up displays. 1980.
  4. Wickens, C.D. and J. Long, Object versus space-based models of visual attention: Implications for the design of head-up displays. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 1995. 1(3): p. 179.
  5. Koch, C. and N. Tsuchiya, Attention and consciousness: Two distinct brain processes. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2007. 11(1): p. 16-22.
  6. Ludwig, C.J.H., J.R. Davies, and M.P. Eckstein, Foveal analysis and peripheral selection during active visual sampling. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2014. 111(2): p. E291-E299.
  7. Posner, M.I., Orienting of attention. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1980. 32(1): p. 3-25.
  8. Deubel, H. and W.X. Schneider, Saccade target selection and object recognition: Evidence for a common attentional mechanism. Vision Research, 1996. 36(12): p. 1827-1837.
  9. Hoffman, J.E. and B. Subramaniam, The role of visual attention in saccadic eye movements. Perception & Psychophysics, 1995. 57(6): p. 787-795.
  10. Kowler, E., et al., The role of attention in the programming of saccades. Vision Research, 1995. 35(13): p. 1897-1916.
  11. Atchley, P., et al., Spatial cuing in a stereoscopic display: Evidence for a “depth-aware” attentional focus. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 1997. 4(4): p. 524-529.



Way more complex than you think, this ^^^ All this suggests is that fovea and peripheral vision perform different functions when an individual assimilates information about a scene, it tells you nothing about the direction of travel or gaze plot behaviour. The correlation between peripheral attention and foveal attention is a function of radius from the tracking centre; a peripheral gaze plot would == normal gaze plot + larger plot radius.

Maybe you could test users with a foveal block to assess the degree with which the gist of a website contributes to certain metrics such as recognition/recollection etc? You would have to do this across a number of websites and look to see if some websites perform better than others and what layout decisions have been made that cause these differences. Caveat: you couldn't complare the gaze plots to a normal eye track because the behaviour of the users would be quite different...


http://fivesecondtest.com/ I think this is perhaps a good proxy for how effective a site is at communicating its gist; one simply does not have enough time to fixate on anything for any great length of time?

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