Podcast 121: The pop out effect

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This is the podcast 121 and it’s about the pop out effect. The pop out effect occurs when you look at a screen of green circles and can easily identify the one red circle. It’s the only one that’s not green so visually it pops out at you. You don’t have to think about it. It’s immediate.

The effect is also seen in criminal lineups. People who identify a suspect by saying that the face just popped out at them, or they just recognize the person and they don’t know why, are more often correct than people who say they somehow narrowed down the field or compared faces to make their decision.

And of course it’s used in marketing products. The more different packaging looks from the packaging of other similar products, the more likely a potential buyer will notice it. That’s certainly the first battle in marketing, getting consumers to notice what you’re selling.

In the visual perception field this effect is generally tested using items that are different colors, different shapes, different sizes and different orientations. Kind of simple and pretty easy to distinguish visually. Apparently, the effect is not as pronounced with, say, human faces.

Still, I assert that you can use the strategy to help you keep your space tidier. Here’s the concept. You arrange a space the way you like, uncluttered, serene, useful, and ideally, beautiful. You take some time to become used to how it looks, which means maintaining it for a period of time. I like to think of it as taking a mental snapshot of what the space looks like.

Let’s take the example of your kitchen table. You have a napkin dispenser, salt and pepper shakers, maybe a centerpiece. So once you establish that look, anything else that appears on the table should pop out in your visual field as something that does not belong. I’m talking about things like a stack of mail or some random magazines or some stuff you pulled out of your pocket or purse and just stuck there.

This can be an effective way to help you tidy up. If you can train your visual mind to recognize a handful of items that do not belong on the kitchen table but often appear there, you can zero in on them visually and scoop them up. That is a more streamlined method than looking around at everything and being overwhelmed by all the clutter.

You probably already experienced the opposite of pop out effect. That’s when items in your immediate environment are not even visible to you because they have all been there for so long they become part of the background. If you can’t see something you are not likely to tidy it up. This is also why it is hard to find things when you have a lot of clutter. Each item of clutter serves as a distractor preventing you from seeing the one thing you’re looking for. A visual field with fewer distractors is easier to find stuff in.

I want to talk about what I mean when I say clutter. What I don’t mean is a home that is full of, say, dolls, pillows, photos, souvenirs and tchotchkes. Some people love that style of decorating and others find it visually cluttered. But in that case we are just talking about décor. We are talking about items that only fall into a few categories and can easily be identified by that category.

A pillow is a pillow is a pillow no matter what it looks like. You don’t need to expend fresh visual energy identifying pillow number four once you’ve seen the first three. You can see 40 more and they all get quickly slotted into the pillow category, not worthy of your mental attention.

The kind of clutter I am talking about is the kind that is quite varied in looks, purpose and provenance. It’s like Noah’s ark, one of each kind of thing under the sun! I know I said earlier that the opposite of pop out effect is fade into the background effect, but that’s not completely true. Your poor little brain is actually taking in all that visual information and trying to sort it like a giant dryer load of socks.

In order to use this concept successfully, your clutter needs to be somewhat under control. It’s hard to get any one thing to pop out of a field if there are too many distractors. You can start small, as I often recommend. Tackle your kitchen table or counter, or your coffee table, some small area that tends to collect stuff that doesn’t belong there. Set it up the way you want and take that mental snapshot.

What you can do right now: do a visual sweep of each of your clutter spots and quickly identify what doesn’t belong there. Return those items to their assigned spots. Using the pop out technique, it’s easy and stress-free to identify those items.