The term salient refers to anything (person, behavior, trait, etc.) that is prominent, conspicuous, or otherwise noticeable compared with its surroundings. Salience is usually produced by novelty or unexpectedness, but can also be brought about by shifting one’s attention to that feature. Salience usually depends on context. A child would not be particularly salient at his or her school, but would be at a nursing home. The act of crying would not be salient at a funeral, but would be at a job interview. A salient feature can be thought of as the “figure” that stands out against the “ground” of all other nonsalient features.
Importance of Salience
Humans have a limited ability to process information; they cannot attend to every aspect of a situation. Salience determines which information will most likely grab one’s attention and have the greatest influence on one’s perception of the world. Unfortunately, the most salient information is not always the most accurate or important. Salient media coverage might cause people to overestimate the frequency of relatively unusual dangers (e.g., airplane crashes) and underestimate much more common threats (e.g., colon cancer) that do not receive salient coverage. People are not usually consciously aware of the extent to which salience affects them.
Salience has been shown to influence people’s perception of the causes of events, particularly other people’s behaviors. Behaviors have two possible causes: the traits of the person who performs the behavior, or aspects of the situation in which the behavior took place. Researchers have repeatedly shown that the situation in which behaviors takes place is usually not very salient to observers. Instead observers almost always focus on the behavior itself, which leads them to infer the traits of the person. If someone snaps at you, you are more likely to think that this is a mean person than that he or she is simply having a bad day. Although behaviors are quite salient for observers, the situational context is often more salient to the actors themselves, for example, “I’m smiling because one has to smile at job interviews.” Interesting, some studies have increased the salience of actors’ behavior to themselves, for example, by having them perform a task in front of a mirror, or watch a videotape of themselves performing the behavior. In this case, actors attributed their behavior to their own disposition rather than to the situation, just as an observer would, for example, “I’m smiling because I’m a happy person.”
How Do Researchers Manipulate Salience?
Researchers can increase the salience of a person in a number of ways. First, they can simply direct observers’ attention to that person. Second, they can change the visual characteristics of the person relative to others in the situation. For example, one person may wear a brightly colored shirt instead of a dull one, or rock in a rocking chair instead of sitting motionless. Third, researchers can arrange a situation so that the feature is more noticeable to observers. In a classic experiment by Shelley Taylor and Susan Fiske, for example, two actors were seated facing each other having a get-acquainted conversation, while other observers sat in a circle around them. If an observer could see the face of one actor better than the other, that salient actor was believed to have set the tone of the conversation, and have greater influence over the behavior of the other nonsalient actor. Similar results have been shown by having observers watch a videotaped conversation shown from different camera angles. Whichever actor is most visually salient (e.g., has their face shown by the camera) will be judged by most people to control the conversation. In an interesting twist on this experiment, the conversation being observed is between a police officer and someone confessing to a crime. People who viewed the police officer’s face were more likely to perceive the confession as coerced, that is, caused by the police officer. Other research has shown that simply sitting at the head of a table will increase one’s salience and cause observers to judge that person as having more leadership qualities.
Salience, Sex, and Race
Salience can affect perceptions of people who are members of minority or stereotyped groups. Researchers have manipulated the uniqueness of an actor’s sex or race by changing the composition of a group the actor is in. In one study, participants listened to a tape-recorded conversation between six men. A photograph of each man appeared on a screen as he spoke, allowing researchers to manipulate the proportion of Black to White men in the group. Compared with a situation with equal representation of both races, a person who occupied solo status (the only Black person in the room) was perceived to have spoken more, and to have been more influential in the conversation. Similar studies have shown that the only woman in a room full of men is more likely to be stereotyped than is a woman in a more balanced environment. In general, salient persons and objects are evaluated more extremely than are other targets.
Salience also affects perceptions of entire groups. Smaller minority groups tend to be more salient than larger, majority groups. Observers often perceive members of smaller groups to be more similar to each other than are members of larger groups. Interesting, members of salient groups are also more likely to overestimate how much they agree with each other, and to show a stronger bias in favor of their own group.
In addition, research has shown that because salient pairings (e.g., violent crime and minority race) are more available in memory, they are likely to be overestimated when people later recall their frequency. This may contribute to the perpetuation of certain stereotypes.
- Taylor, S. E., & Fiske, S. T. (1978). Salience, attention, and attribution: Top of the head phenomena. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 11, pp. 249-288). New York: Academic Press.