Isolation Effect – Being Distinctive From the Rest

With many similar objects, the one which is distinctive from the rest is likely to be remembered!

I went to the vegetable section of the supermarket. In front of me were lots of green capsicums, except for one red one.

When I left the store, what did I remember? I remembered the red one. For no apparent reason. Except that it was distinctive. It was different. And it stood out. 

This is the Von Restorff Effect or The Isolation effect that says that with many similar objects, the one which is different from the rest is likely to be remembered!

There are many ways for the Von Restorff Effect to work. People do not realize it.

People judge something different depending on whether it is isolated and placed as an alternative. In particular, certain choices can be made to look more attractive when placed next to alternatives, which are in some ways much better.

Some examples

  • CTAs look different from other action buttons on a website or app! Users should distinguish between a simple action button and a CTA so that they have a clear understanding of how a CTA works. They can remember it while they are using the app or site.
  • Words on pages that are highlighted are usually remembered than words without 
  • Designers are always using this effect to market products better and create unique web properties.
  • Bold, italic, and text in various colours and fonts will stand out. If a particular message needs to reach a customer, the best way to do this is to set it against a background colour.

In 1933, a German psychiatrist, Hedwig von Restorf experimented. She found that when participants were given a list of words that were often homogeneous and words that were very different, they were more likely to remember different words.

There are also interesting consequences here. You remember that unique object, but the attention it receives from you is distracted by other elements – that way, you will generally be less able to remember.

Hedwig’s work relates to Gestalt’s Figure Ground principle. The figure-ground principle states that people instinctively perceive objects as either being in the foreground or the background. They either stand out prominently in the front (the figure) or recede into the back (the ground). 

Taylor and Fiske found that attention is usually directed at stimuli that are clear, new, surprising, or different. They can be used to make Von Restorff even more effective.

In the “Age of Attention”, where media are trying to get our attention, advertisers often apply this principle and compete with each other to stand out from the crowd and therefore remembered.

Whenever we design to distinguish one element from similar ones, we rely on this effect.

There have to be different states like form, colour etc. to choose from, otherwise, this effect will not work. Although effective, it is important to use contrast in a way that does not diminish its strength. If you use the Von Restorff Effect improperly, then it can confuse you.

Use It Carefully

The isolation effect can affect memory. Although isolated information is more likely to be stored, other information is likely to be forgotten. When trying to memorize various pieces of information, it is necessary to consider which parts stand out the most and which are most important to remember.

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