Certainty Grabs Attention, While Uncertainty Sustains It

People are engaged when they feel uncertain because they want to resolve this feeling.

Emotions with certainty (e.g., anger, pride, confidence) grab attention, while emotions with uncertainty (e.g., anxiety, hope, surprise) sustain attention


Stimuli that grab attention should sustain attention too, right?

Not necessarily. In fact, these stimuli often lose attention faster.

For example, social media posts get more likes and comments when they contain emotional certainty (e.g., words like "always" and "forever"; Pezzuti, Leonhardt, & Warren, 2021).

But a new study found that uncertain emotions (e.g., anxiety, hope, surprise) are stickier. They sustain attention. Why? Because you want to resolve these uncertain feelings (Berger, Moe, & Schweidel, 2023).

Feel anxious about the weather? You'll check the weather more intensely.

Researchers modified the opening paragraph of a news article:

Recent stock market performance has made investors really [sad/ anxious/angry]. Most markets are down over 25%, the average American has lost tens of thousands of dollars, and many have [helplessly/nervously/furiously] watched as their retirement savings have dwindled. “I’m [heartbroken/worried/frustrated], said one New Jersey man, “my family is really [devastated/confused/bitter].”

The anxious framing kept the most attention. Participants were most likely to read the full article.

  • Berger, J., Moe, W. W., & Schweidel, D. A. (2023). What Holds Attention? Linguistic Drivers of Engagement. Journal of Marketing, 0(0).
  • Pezzuti, T., Leonhardt, J. M., & Warren, C. (2021). Certainty in language increases consumer engagement on social media. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 53(1), 32-46.