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Psychology of Visualization Post 1.1- Food, Sex, and Danger- A Deadly Combination: 3 Brains

Post 1.1- Food, Sex, and Danger- A Deadly Combination: 3 Brains

The first thing to realize in the psychology of visualization is that people have three brains.

In the book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? by Susan Weinschenk, the author explains how people have three brains. The “new brain” is the conscious, reasoning, logical brain; the “mid brain” is the part of the brain that processes emotions, and the “old brain” is the part of the brain that is interested in survival. Survival instincts make certain things stand out more than others whether we realize it or not. Food, sex, and danger are three of the top concerns of the brains survival mechanism.

 “Can I eat it? Can I have sex with it? Will it kill me?”– The job of the old brain is to constantly scan the environment and answer the questions: “Can I eat it? Can I have sex with it? Will it kill me?” That’s really all the old brain cares about, is food, sex, and danger. Without food people die, without sex the species won’t continue, and if people are killed the other two questions don’t matter.

People Can’t Resist— What this means is that people just can’t resist noticing food, sex, or danger. It doesn’t matter how hard people try to not notice these 3 things in their surroundings, people will always notice them. It’s the old brain working. People don’t necessarily have to act once they notice these things, for example, people don’t have to eat the chocolate cake when people see it, people don’t have to flirt with the attractive person who walked into the room, and people don’t have to run away from the large scary guy that walked in the room with the good looking woman. But people WILL notice all of those things because their survival compulsions dictate it.

Cake, Pretty Woman, and a Tiger on the Loose—How to fit a picture of cake, a woman in a bikini, and a Tiger walking down your street all into one visualization? If people want to get someone’s attention, then any images that include or imply food, sex, or danger will definitely get attention. But people will have to decide what is appropriate!

Do you have any examples of visuals that successfully, and unsuccessfully, use food, sex, and danger? Do you have anything to add? Please contribute!



There are a number of dual process theories in the cognitive science literature, specifically aimed at decision making, judgement, and persuasion.  I think a good place to start when applying them to visualization is to think about our purpose in using a graphical display.

If we’re primarily interested in using a visualization to educate then the question of motivation is surely relevant.  In this case, I would be trying to figure out how to motivate the learner to use their "new brain" (Weinschenk) / "central route" (Cacioppo, 1986), /"second system" (Kahneman, 2003). It seems there is a “sweet spot” whereby a graphic should be visually appealing enough to keep a reader engaged, but not so flashy that it detracts from it’s informative value.  This also raises the question of the degree of informativeness in the graphic itself (ie. is it full of decorative chart junk or relevant information?)… but that is a whole other blog post in and of itself :-)

There are two models in the cognitive science/educational psychology literature you may find interesting:

  1. Richard Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning : built on assumptions of cognitive architecture and perceptive capabilities, explores how humans use both text and pictures in order to construct meaning (Mayer, 2002). 
  2. Wolfgang Schnotz’s Integrated Model of Text-Picture Comprehension: Considers how learners use multiple modalities in order to build mental models of information during a learning task. (Schnotz, 2005)

Dr. Schnotz’s lab is currently running very interesting studies using eye tracking technology in order to determine how students (of both high and low ability) use graphics that accompany text when solving test questions.  You can see very quickly that when designing instructional materials, it is necessary to carefully consider the prior knowledge of the learners and not present graphics that are merely ornamental or redundant to the text.   

If you're more interested in using a graphical display to persuade, then the communication science literature more directly addresses the issue of motivation in dual process theories like the Elaboration Likelihood Model. Again, if our purpose is to educate, then we want our graphics to be appealing enough to captivate a learner’s attention, but not so mesmerizing that they are not motivated to continue down the “central” route of cognitive processing, merely distracted by the peripheral cues present in the graphics.  If we truly want to persuade, then we can persue either path, though ELM suggests that attitude and behavior change via the central path is more durable. 

And of course, Sweller’s classic Cognitive Load Theory serves as a simple and straightforward set of guidelines for educators looking to ensure they are designing materials well suited to their learners.  The Redundancy, Modality and Multimedia effects are of specific interest to data visualization.  (Chandler & Sweller, 1991)



Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). Communication and Persuasion: Central and Peripheral Routes to Attitude Change. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Kahneman, D. (2003). A perspective on judgment and choice: mapping bounded rationality. American psychologist58(9), 697.

Mayer, R. E. (2002). Multimedia learning. Psychology of Learning and Motivation41, 85-139.

Schnotz, W. (2005). An integrated model of text and picture comprehension.The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning, 49-69.

Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive load theory and the format of instruction. Cognition and instruction8(4), 293-332.



This is great information Amy!

I also love that you have added the references. So often these are left out but this is how people can learn more and find a corpus of information to delve into.

As for that: I have some experience also in eye tracking. This was not part of the series but is 100% applicable so I will add it here.

Eye tracking is a technology that allows you to see and record what a person is looking at, and for how long. One way it is used is to study images to see where people are looking, where they look first, second, etc. It’s a pretty interesting technology, one of the benefits being that you don’t have to rely on what people say they are looking at, but can collect the data directly. Like any technology, however, it’s not perfect, and one of the problems with eye tracking is that you can’t just give people an image to look at and then assume that where they look is what they are “really interested” in or how they are mentally processing the image.

In research by Yarbus, people were shown this <> picture, and then given different instructions of what to think about while looking at the picture. The image site also shows the eye movement tracking.

Proceed with caution. If you are using eye tracking as a technique to evaluate how people are mentally processing your visualization then you must be very careful about the instructions you give, and you must make sure you are giving everyone the exact same instructions. You can’t assume that the findings are constants or that they are 100% objective.

Reference: Yarbus, A. L. (1967). Eye Movements and Vision (B. Haigh, trans.), New York: Plenum.


Another fantastic thing to look at is this info graphic on Eye Tracking 101