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Movement and Attention


Explanations > Perception > Attention > Movement

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When something moves, we pay closer attention to it.

It has a pronounced effect on attention if the movement is close to us. Movement that is further away is less of a threat.

Direction of movement is significant.

  • Movement towards you suggests a threat.
  • Movement away may or may not be desirable.
  • Lateral movement is easy to estimate for speed and begs the question 'To what destination?'

Other movement variables include:

  • Speed: Faster movement often increases threat, especially if the movement is faster than a possible defending or avoidance counter-movement. Slower movement may not be noticed.
  • Acceleration: Changes in speed, in other words acceleration or deceleration, also grab attention, especially when closer to you.
  • Turns: Changes in direction grabs attention, especially when the turn increases threat, such as when it it is towards you.

This is easier when everything else is stationary. When much is moving, then something which is moving faster or in the opposite direction to others may still stand out. Stationary objects within surrounding confusion can become the point of attention.


A soldier notices a slight movement on the battlefield and watches closely for an approaching enemy.

A photographer moves the camera as the shutter is pressed to give an impression of movement in a static scene.

A TV advert limits movement to key actions around the portrayed product.


We are remarkably good at spotting movement, even when we are moving. Movements can betray threat, so spotting this change is a useful skill.

Many predators work on the principle of being able to see even the slightest movement of their prey. Prey also watch for movement (as well as being rather good at standing still). Their camouflage, which breaks up their outline, fails the moment they move.

When somebody nearby moves suddenly, we pay attention in case they are going to attack us. Interestingly, powerful people often use stillness to stand out.

Movement that suggests emphasis increases attention. When people are talking and want to create emphasis, they often lean forward, even just tilting their head slightly. They may also make sharp gestures.

Eyes are designed to detect movement, where the change in signal across adjacent cells is used as the basic movement detection sensor.

We do not need much information to identify things, and it has been found that humans can easily recognize another person in the dark who just has lights on their joints (this principle is used when creating cartoon animation to make them seem more realistic).

Movement is difficult to portray in pictures. When we see pictures of birds in the air and speeding cars, we know they are moving, though if they are sharp, this is not how we normally see them. Movement is hence often portrayed using blur. Another way to create the impression of movement is to make the eyes move, for example with a 'letterbox' format.

So what?

To get attention in conversation, move suddenly, perhaps making a gesture to support what you are saying. You can also move closer to the other person, perhaps even just leaning in a little.

See also



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