How does a flashing message effect cognitive processes like memory and attention and what, if any, were the outcomes of any studies performed in this area?

For example, if a warning sign flashes how much effect does it have on how noticeable it is and how likely the user is to remember the danger next time round.

I'm aware that blink tags are horrible and that flashing would in most circumstances is to be avoided, as well as being aware that any animated element in an interface can be extremely distracting, however, I am looking for quantification of the effect of flashing messages when compared to non flashing messages.

Although my example is a warning message, I don't necessarily need to remain within the context of just warning messages, I am interested in the effect of flashing on cognition specifically. (I am not interested in how to make warning messages, or in the fact that warnings should be avoided in the first place)

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    This is a Big Question - Part I: There are many research studies on the effect of flashing displays and guidelines based on the research in the context of flash rate of emergency vehicle lighting, crash avoidance systems, air traffic control displays, railroad crossing signals, etc. – user1757436 Nov 21 '13 at 13:31
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    This is a Big Question - Part II: Questions about memory could include: Is memory for an event that was preceded by a flashing message more accurate? more durable? less susceptible to interference? Questions about attention could include: does a flashing message interfere with primary task performance? secondary task performance? performance on verbal tasks? manual tasks? spatial tasks? Narrowing the question might make getting an answer easier. – user1757436 Nov 21 '13 at 13:36

It's a complex question, as there are a lot of conditions both flashing (hue, frequency, luminosity, etc.) and human (psychophysiological state, color blindnes, etc.). I've read this topic in Engineering Psychology books (this is the name of the field in ex-USSR), there were a lot of experiments. Unfortunately, the books are on Russian.

Still short and rough rule is:

flashing increases signal noticability, but leads to human fatigue, as flashing requires more cognitive load and information processing.

So flashing should be used carefully and in balanced maner.

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  • May I ask you to guide me to some useful titles on Engineering Psychology. For me personally reading in Russian is not a problem. Thank you in advance! – scopchanov Jul 27 '17 at 7:50
  • @scopchanov Take a look at these autors: Lomov (Ломов) and Salvendy (Салвенди). There are some books of these authors on Russian. Please feel free to contact me. – Alexey Kolchenko Jul 27 '17 at 9:13

The visual system has evolved to respond to movement in peripheral vision.


Flicker fusion threshold is higher for peripheral than foveal vision. Peripheral vision is good at detecting motion (a feature of rod cells).

This is I believe some evolutionary hard wired thing that bypasses some of the 'thinking' (ie cognitive) bits of the brain so that when the tiger leaps at the caveman the caveman reacts quickly.

I'll see if I can find some better links on this some time.

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    "Since the major job of the old brain is to keep us from harm, anything threatening our survival will get the old brain's attention." Susan Weinschenk, Neuro Web Design, p. 65 – LindaCamillo Nov 21 '13 at 15:57

I have no scientific backup to what I am saying here, but, I think that to the human eye, flashing is a kind of motion. As the eye is sensitive to motion, so it is sensitive to flashing. So, flashing content is more noticeable than static one, consider all other aspects like the size of the text, color etc. are the same. Don't know if it make it more likely to remember.

Regarding the usage of it, I would say that, if you want to warn the user from such a disastrous action he is going to take, maybe it is be better to prevent it in the first place.

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    I did ask specifically for the results of studies and also about cognition and flashing, not error messages particularly – Toni Leigh Nov 21 '13 at 11:30

The design of everyday things could be a good way to look at this. For example one thing that springs to mind is a vehicles turn signal. Obviously there must have been massive research in this area so that might be a good place to start. I'm fairly sure they all blink at the same rate right? It's definitely not just coincidence.

Other things to look at are some of the WCAG guidelines to ensure the blinking isn't too fast that could cause seizures or other unwanted effects. Some good reading material here: http://www.w3.org/TR/UNDERSTANDING-WCAG20/seizure.html They have essentially come up with a threshold to stay under which again I'm confident that research of some sort went into.

Hope that helps or gives you more to pursuit.

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  • There has been research in the area of automobile turn signals. Given the reliance on knobs, dials, and lights in early HMI, flashing displays were of interest to system designers and researchers from the beginning. This research is the basis for the SAE J1690 standard for turn signals of 60 to 120 flashes per minute and 30 to 75% on time. – user1757436 Nov 21 '13 at 16:20

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