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The Eyes Have It

Visual trumps audio. Science says so.


As a group of people focused on providing visual solutions for our clients, it’s always nice when science gives the eyeballs a nod.

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Yup – I’ve written before about how heavily humans weight our visual senses as we make sense of the world, but there’s a new bit of research out lately that calls this into, well, focus even more starkly.

I say classical music competition, and what do you think of first? Sound? Or sight? Sound seems like the obvious pick here, but a recent study found participants had a higher success rate when it came to identifying the winners in competitions based on watching silent video clips, and not from listening to the audio recordings. Really. Even when the study participants were highly trained musicians.

It’s a very counterintuitive finding — there have been some interesting reactions from musicians,” said study author and recent Harvard Graduate Chia-Jung Tsay said. “What this suggests is that there may be a way that visual information is prioritized over information from other modalities. In this case, it suggests that the visual trumps the audio, even in a setting where audio information should matter much more.”

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Tsay earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior with a secondary Ph.D. field in music last year. She recruited almost 1,200 volunteers who were given either video clips without sound, audio clips, or video clips that included sound. After viewing or listening, they were asked to identify the winners.

What I found was that people had a lower chance of identifying the eventual winner if they only listened to the sound,” Tsay said. “People who just had the video — even without the sound — had surprisingly high rates of selecting the actual winner. Even with professional musicians, who are trained to use sound, and who have both expertise and experience, it appeared that the visual information was overriding the sound.”

Here’s Tsay, a Juilliard-trained pianist in competition.

Eyeballs matter, people, so take care of them! And we’ll keep working hard to show them nothing but the good stuff. And here are some eyebally facts, just because.

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Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

Alison Christie

Alison Christie

With a Major in witty comebacks and a Minor in motherhood, Ali is all about the words and has been sharing them liberally with all and sundry for years. Oh! The stories she could tell, but for those million dollar non-disclosure contracts she has signed. Moving swiftly on.

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