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"Captions under images are read on average 300% more than the body copy itself". http://blog.kissmetrics.com/shocking-truth-about-graphics/

My research tells me this finding comes from David Ogilvy, a famous advertiser. From my personal experience and from watching users through ClickTale, I would say its true and users will pay more attention to (good) images in the right context.

Does anyone know of any scientific or psychological reason that people like to read image captions and WHY they get read so much? What about them draws so much attention?

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There are two aspects to it

Well positioned and relevant images tend to draw users attention

As users scan across the content and the images tend to draw more attention the caption being close to it gets more visibility. To quote this article which highlights key results of an eye tracking study

  • “the bigger the image, the more time people took to look at it.”
  • “Our research also shows that clean, clear faces in images attract more eye fixations on homepages”

That said, images need to be relevant or they are ignored as mentioned in this article

Images Need to Deliver Content Messages or They’re Ignored

Eye-tracking studies have also shown how web visitors react to graphics such as photos or diagrams.

  • They pay close attention to images that deliver content messages, such as photos of a product or of a real person (as opposed to a stock photo of a model).
  • They completely ignore “feel-good,” “fluff,” and non-information-carrying photos and graphics.

The law of proximity

As per the law of proximity the items close together to each other will be considered as one single item and since images do draw a lot of attention the related caption is also read since its considered as part of the image. To quote this article

The Law of Proximity indicates that elements that are near to each other tend to be perceived as a single unit. This can be very helpful for e.g. if you want to display two categories of elements on a web page of which each has more than one piece of content.

  • Thanks for the great answer and all the research. Looking through it, one thing I found interesting was: "Smaller type encourages focused viewing behavior (that is, reading the words), while larger type promotes scanning." So it seems that keeping the image caption text smaller (in traditional caption style) and with engaging content is the way to go. – ccnokes Mar 3 '14 at 17:15
  • I definitely ignore most of the images, graphics and boxes on a web page. The more "advertise-y" the more I ignore. The owners of the site would be better off making it less "interesting" and just giving the information I am looking for. We survived for hundreds of years reading black type on white pages with no images at all. – user67695 Apr 18 '17 at 15:13
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I'd rather look at pictures than read long text. If I don't fully understand the image (especially why it's there), I will read the caption.

I usually scan the material first so I know where the info is that I want. Images, diagrams, headings, bullet points, and inserts are guides for me. I will most likely not read body text if it doesn't contain the topic I want.

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My assumption is that there's a figure-ground relationship there.

If the image is "good" (relevant, compelling, or serves whatever the intended purpose) then it can provide salient details (figure) or context (ground) in a much more cognitively manageable way than a bunch of text data (eg. infographics with clarifying text, or news articles with poignant images).

If you read a bit more about Gestalt psychology, you'll see it's less about decision-making, and more about processing. The Cognitive Science and Design talk by Alex Faaborg from I/O discusses some of these relationships.

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Images have the potential to convey a lot of information in a very small space and time, not to mention their potential beauty/attractivness, so we all are compelled to see them, but a lot of times, the amount of information is too much, or potentially to broad, or a bit difficult to understand, or ...; so the caption help focus our brain efforts on understanding what is in the image, what is the message that is sending us, what is the message that we should get from that image and how should we read/understand it.

Of course, in some situations, the image is just funny, and the caption is a punch line that seals the joke.

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