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Incongruity and Attention


Explanations > Perception > Attention > Incongruity

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



A way of grabbing attention is to present the person which is incongruous, unexpected and difficult to classify. For example, if we saw a person wearing underpants on their head, we would probably look twice and wonder what was going on.

Ways of creating incongruity include:

  • Contradict what you just said.
  • Wear unusual clothing.
  • Dress one way, then act another way.
  • Use optical illusions.
  • Change the normal positions of things.
  • Put things together that do not normally go together.


A sales person wears a bright bow tie. When customers notices it, the sales person uses this to create a little laughter which relaxes the customer and allows the sales person to launch into their spiel.

A teacher adopts an eccentric persona. Her student pay attention, waiting for the next oddity.

A photograph uses perspective to make a person look rather small.


When we sense the world around us, the first thing we must do is make sense of it, recognizing objects and inferring meaning from what we see. When our recognition is only partial, when things are not quite as they should be, we are struck by the incongruity of the situation and are unable to make full sense of what we see. This creates a tension gap that draws us in, causing us to attend closer in order to make better sense and resolve the tension.

A critical method in recognition is pattern-matching. We try to fit not only shapes but also movement and sequences of action to our internal models. Fit is a variable that ranges from perfect fit down to no fit. We experience neither of these. Fit is mostly good enough and we fill in the gaps and ignore minor deviations, for example, we may recognize a friend behind a post wearing a new hat. However, there is a point where the lack of fit is beyond experience and expectation, such as if a male friend is wearing a woman's hat.

Incongruity surprises and confuses. It makes us pause and perhaps even laugh (incongruity is a common essence of humor). It makes us look again and think again. What was an unconscious process of interpretation now becomes a conscious process of assessment and revision. Into this period of confusion, a suggestion may be made that the person will quickly accept as a means of resolving the tension of ambiguity.

Artists often use incongruity, with juxtaposition and changes in shape, hue, focus, position and so on. This can be subtly done in photographs or with radical expression such as with contemporary art.

So what?

Consider what is normal. Then consider changing elements of this, and the effect this will have, in particular how it will cause people to pause and pay attention.

Incongruity can make people pause and look confused. This is the point where you can inject a key point that you want them to agree with. The principle is that the incongruity will occupy their mind to the point that they cannot think of any serious objections.

See also

Confusion principle


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