When it comes to marketing, consumers are overwhelmed with stimuli that try to get their attention. In order to keep up, consumers filter out most incoming messages and focus only on those that fit with their preexisting beliefs and needs. This process is called selective attention. Marketers need to understand this concept because they must be able to catch the selective attention of consumers in order to get their message noticed and understood.

For example, if someone is in the market for a new car, they will atomically notice all the cars that are available in their area that look like the one they’re interested in. Or if they are shopping for a new handbag, Facebook ads featuring that same handbag will appear all over their social media newsfeed. This is because, as humans, we are innately programmed to notice stimuli that relate to our current needs.

While previous studies have found first evidence that competition in attention influences preferences, the results are not entirely consistent with the competition hypothesis. For example, Janiszewski et al. (2013) presented products for equal amount of time and asked participants to search for a target product or a distractor product. If the competition hypothesis holds, participants should prefer the product they attended to more if they found it faster and looked at it longer than the comparison product.

However, it is possible that the effects observed in these experiments are not due to competition but rather due to a response retrieval account (Janiszewski et al., 2013). In this account, the effect of attending to a product is explained by the fact that participants subsequently choose it more often because they retrieved a learned motor response from their initial exposure to the product.