Von Restorff Effect

Are you looking to remember information more effectively? Share your message and make it stick! You’ve got to learn about the Von Restorff Effect!

Let’s say you go into a candle store. The candle shop is stacked with all of the usual flavors with pleasant scents. It’s only candles – except for one, random blender that is also for sale. When you leave the candle store, what are you likely to remember? For many reasons, you’re most likely to remember the blender. It’s unique. It’s different. It completely takes your mind off of the pleasant-smelling candles in the store.  In psychology, this is explained by the Von Restorff Effect.

What Is The Von Restorff Effect?

The Von Restorff Effect is also known as the “isolation effect.” The isolated piece of information or incident is more likely to be recalled than an event that blends into the background. When something stands out, you point your focus there, and the process of making a strong memory begins. 

candles and a blender on shelves

In 1933, a German psychiatrist named Hedwig Von Restorff conducted experiments on memory. She discovered that when participants were given a list of generally homogenous words to remember and one very distinctive word, they were more likely to remember the distinctive word. Her study has inspired many other psychologists to look at this effect and how it affects memory.

One of the most well-known images that describe the Von Restorff Effect is a photo of tomatoes. All of the tomatoes are green, except for one glaringly red tomato in the middle of the photo. Even if you don’t see the photo, it’s not hard to imagine that your eyes and your focus go directly to the red tomato. And when your eyes go directly to the red tomato (and stay on that red tomato,) you are more likely to remember there was one red tomato in the basket. Unless you are asked to count the green tomatoes, you probably don’t know how many green tomatoes are in the basket!

tomato in a bushel of green apples

Is the Von Restorff Effect a Cognitive Bias?

Yes! Cognitive biases are patterns of thought that lead people to misinterpret information. That one red tomato is one of the billions of tomatoes on the Earth. It is a tomato just like any of the green tomatoes surrounding it. So why does it stick out so much in our minds? Because we are influenced by cognitive biases like the Von Restorff Effect.

This cognitive bias is pretty unique. Not all cognitive biases help us remember visual information. Some cognitive biases affect our judgment and decision-making, too. Examples of other cognitive biases include:

  • Confirmation Bias
  • Dunning-Kruger Effect
  • Anchoring Bias
  • Actor-Observer Bias
  • Hindsight Bias
  • Implicit Bias
  • Ingroup and Outgroup Bias

…and many more!

How Does the Von Restorff Effect Work?

Why is our judgment affected by cognitive biases? The short answer is, it takes a load off our brains! Our minds are always working hard, taking in sights, smells, sounds, and new information all the time. There is just no way that we could remember everything that we see in front of us!

To make things easier, our minds take a series of shortcuts to store and recall information about the world around us. For example, if we have been in a room 1,000 times, our minds pretty much know what that room is going to look like. It doesn’t always take in every detail – meaning that we might miss small changes. (This is also known as change blindness.)

The Von Restorff Effect is just another way to make things easier for our minds. What sounds easier: memorizing the shape, size, and placement of 100 green apples in a barrel, or memorizing one red apple? See? It’s much easier to take in the information that sticks out among the rest.

Elements That Produce the Von Restorff Effect

What makes information or objects stand out from the things around them? Let us count the ways! There are plenty of factors that can differentiate certain pieces of information on your screen, in your books, or right in front of you.

  • Color
  • Size
  • Shape
  • Motion
  • Orientation

Does the Von Restorff Effect Apply to Everyone?

Although we generally store and recall memory through the same processes, age and other factors can affect our ability to remember information. This led some psychologists to conduct different studies on how the Von Restorff Effect affected different ages. The studies produced interesting results. One study suggested that the Von Restorff Effect only affected the memories of children and young adults. Other studies showed that while the effect was less dramatic, older adults were also affected by the Von Restorff Effect. The elements used to make information distinct varied between studies. There is more than goes into this memory trick that meets the eye!

Examples of Von Restorff Effect

There are a lot of ways for the Von Restorff Effect to kick in. You probably already take advantage of this effect without knowing it!

Have you ever highlighted information in a book? That’s one way you can use the isolation effect to your advantage! The words on the page that have green highlighter on them are more likely to stick in your mind than the words that are just on the page without any sort of special marking.

How to Use the Von Restorff Effect to Remember Information

The isolation effect may have an adverse effect on memory. While the isolated piece of information is more likely to be remembered, the rest of the information is more likely to be forgotten. If you are trying to remember a set of information, think about what pieces stick out the most and what pieces are most important to remember. Or, you can make pieces of information stick out. Highlighting is just one way we use the isolation effect to remember key information. There are other ways to do this, too.

  1. When you’re writing out notes, keep two pens close. (Let’s say you’re using a black and blue pen.) Write most of the notes in black, until you hit information that your professor says is important. When you come across important information, write it down in red.
  2. As you review notes, draw boxes around information that you need to remember.
  3. Rewrite notes after taking them as a study strategy!

UX Design and Marketing

Designers and content creators use the Von Restorff Effect all the time to help sell products and build memorable websites.

Bolded text, italic text, and text in different colors and fonts stand out. If there are certain messages that need to reach customers, the best way to make that happen is to recruit the Von Restorff Effect and isolate those messages away from the rest of the text.

You don’t have to be a UX designer or marketing expert to use the Von Restorff Effect in your messaging. If you have a message that you want to communicate to others, consider how this effect plays into your materials. Here are some quick tips for using this effect effectively!

  1. Consider the devices where your audience will be reading information. For example, some Kindles or other devices automatically display information in black and white. Changing the color of your text won’t help users who can’t see the difference! Switch up what elements you are using to make information stand out.
  2. Be selective with the information you want to “highlight.” If every other sentence on a page stands out, nothing will stand out!
  3. Try A/B testing different elements of the effect. Do your users respond better when color is used to differentiate information? Size? Style? Motion?

Other UX Design Principles

Interested in designing web pages or creating an effective user experience? There are a lot of design principles like the Von Restorff Effect that can help you meet your goals:

  • Zeigarnik Effect
  • Goal-Gradient Law
  • Miller’s Law
  • Laws of Good Gestalt (Proximity, Similarity, Closure, Symmetry, Continuity, Common Fate, Past Experience)
  • Peak-End Rule
  • Postel’s Law
  • Aesthetic-Usability Dffect

The Isolation Effect Is More Than Meets The Eye

Isolated sounds or tones of voice may also stick out enough to be more memorable. If you try a different selection of cheeses on a cheese plate, accompanied by one type of meat, you’re more likely to remember the taste of the meat. The Von Restorff Effect is not limited to just one sense or type of stimuli.

It Helps to Be Different!

Some Reddit users even credit the Von Restorff Effect in helping to kickstart the fame of stars like Ed Sheeran or Susan Boyle. When someone is different, they stand out. When people stand out, they are going to be called back, invited to perform, or simply remembered more than the singers, actors, or performers that fade into the background!

Ed Sheeran and a bunch of lookalikes

Other Ways to Remember Important Information

Understanding the idea behind the Von Restorff Effect can help you remember key information, from important quotes to tricky answers on your next test. But it’s far from the only way to remember things! Psychologists and marketing experts have discovered other design principles and cognitive biases that influence our memories and attention. If you are looking to remember a key piece of information, consider the following tips. (Full pages on these effects can all be found on this website!)

  • Serial Position Effect: Want to give the most memorable speech in your class? The Primacy Effect suggests signing up to go first. The Recency Effect suggests signing up to go last! The Serial Position Effect maps out the most memorable pieces of information when presented as a series. This effect works best when presenting information in a list. Want to remember two key ingredients on your grocery list? Put them first and last!
  • Change Your State of Mind: Need to memorize information for a presentation, a test, or just to complete everyday tasks? Consider your state of mind. Replicate the type of environment when you need to recall information or adjust your environment when it’s time to recall. If you know you’re going to be nervous before a speech, get your heart pumping before you begin to memorize your information.
  • Rote Memorization: Repetition is key to memory and learning. Want to get one key message across while giving your speech? Repeat it over and over. Don’t overwhelm your audience with it, but repeat it enough that it becomes the most important message in your entire presentation.
  • Chunking: While you’re studying, “chunk” information into a group. Remembering one group, rather than multiple individual items, is much easier!
  • Acronyms, acrostics, and more! From PEMDAS to “I before E except after C,” there are plenty of phrases and sentences that can help you remember information. Memory tricks are fun!
  • Memory Palace: Visual learners might find that putting crucial information into a Memory Palace helps them recall information more effectively.

Ready, Set, Remember!

Students, designers, and anyone who wants to communicate or remember information can benefit from applying the Von Restorff Effect to their notes or communication.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.