Salience (language)

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This article is about salience in the field of semiotics and communication. For other uses, see Salience (disambiguation).

Salience is the state or condition of being prominent. The Oxford English Dictionary defines salience as "most noticeable or important." The concept is discussed in communication, semiotics, linguistics, sociology, psychology, and political science. It has been studied with respect to interpersonal communication, persuasion, politics, and its influence on mass media.


In semiotics (the study of signs or symbolism), salience refers to the relative importance or prominence of a part of a sign. The salience of a particular sign when considered in the context of others helps an individual to quickly rank large amounts of information by importance and thus give attention to that which is the most important. This process keeps an individual from being overwhelmed with information overload.


Meaning can be described as the "...system of mental representations of an object or phenomenon, its properties and associations with other objects and/or phenomena. In the consciousness of an individual, meaning is reflected in the form of sensory information, images and concepts".[1] It is either denotative or connotative but the sign system for transmitting meanings can be uncertain in its operation or conditions may disrupt the communication and prevent accurate meanings from being decoded.

Further, meaning is socially constructed and dynamic as the culture evolves. This is problematic because an individual’s frame of reference and experience may produce some divergence from some of the prevailing social norms. So the salience of data will be determined by both situational and emotional elements in a combination relatively unique to each individual. For example, a person with an interest in botany may allocate greater salience to visual data involving plants, whereas a person trained as an architect may scan buildings to identify features of interest. A person's world view or Weltanschauung may predispose salience to data matching those views. Because people live for many years, responses become conventional. At a group or community level, the conventional levels of significance or salience are slowly embedded in the sign systems and culture, and they cannot arbitrarily be changed. For example the first thing you see in a poster may be the title or picture of someones face.

Communication studies[edit]

Salience is the critical concept, along with agenda and spin, for the Persuasion theory of Professor Richard E. Vatz of Towson University as articulated in his book, /The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion/, (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013). Salience, in his book and articles, is used as a measure of how reality is created for chosen audiences. He claims (1973) (2013) that the struggle for salience (and agenda and meaning and spin) is the sine qua non of the persuasive process.[2]

Axioms of salience[edit]

Communication scholars have found that a number of different factors have a direct effect on the salience of attitude objects.

Direct experience[edit]

William Crano posits that one’s direct experience with an issue or attitude object increases the salience and consequently the potency of that attitude, and the level of consistency between attitude and behavior.[citation needed]

For example: Consider two people: one with emphysema, one without. Both of whom share a negative attitude toward cigarette smoking. The person with emphysema would have a stronger attitude than his counterpart, and consequently would show greater consistency between his relevant attitude and behavior. It is posited by Crano that the attitude toward smoking of the person with emphysema may be more salient due to his direct experience with the consequence of smoking.


The concept called vested interest by Crano is called self-interest by Sears (1997). It seems that "self-interest" is the more widely recognized term. Self-interest involves either perceived or actual personal consequences. That is, Crano (1997) argues that vested interest involves perceived personal consequences (p. 490), while Sears (1997, a critique of Crano) counter-argues that Crano's survey experiments define it objectively. Crano argues that vested interest should have a moderating effect on attitudes. Sears argues that, actually, evidence for this is conflicting: The survey literature has rarely found significant effects of self-interest, while the experimental literature finds significant effects. The literature is concerned with salience only marginally; it is actually about strength of attitudes (i.e. how well they correlate with behavior). It is about salience inasmuch as anything "strong" is "salient".

Needs and aspirations[edit]

The salience (prominence) of an attitude can also be measured by the relevance of an idea to that person’s needs or aspirations.[3] As ideals become more salient they become more accessible, the more accessible the attitude object is the stronger the attitude toward the object. As accessibility increases, so does the likelihood of self-interested voting (Young).

For example: In times of elections, issue relevant events are the focus of attention. Therefore, candidates, due to their aspiration for a certain political position are interest driven toward the salient events since they are favorable to their party.

Policy making[edit]

Political scientists agree that salience is relatively important in examining political policy, because policies are not only determined by what issues are important to people but also by how important they are. This involves examining what issues are ignored and which are made "important." One research agenda that political scientists are concerned with understanding is "when and how salience and changes in salience matter for political action."

There are three related understandings of salience.

  1. The first ("classical") interpretation considers salience to be independent of the "status quo" and politicians’ ideal policies and programs. Although it says salience is independent of ideals, it does not say that salience is independent of preferences. This means, where there is a change in salience there is also a change in preferences. Often a player or policymaker’s ideals may not be known but their preferences are usually revealed in their party’s manifestos. Often policymakers cannot achieve their ideals but rather must choose between the offers on the table. They may prefer one over the other and this is where salience affects a party or a politician’s position on an issue.
  2. The second ("valence") interpretation proposes that for certain issues salience is a very important factor. In other words, when there is a general consensus of principles, the relative salience of various issues amongst the public determines the policy position of policy makers. This is due to constraints in policy making, where ideals are often induced, which policy makers view as the tradeoff space. For example, although "ideally" they may like to see low unemployment and low inflation, they are usually constrained to pick a position on the "tradeoff" line. Thus, their ideal has been induced due to constraints. In these situations salience and policy position are almost interchangeable, because their "induced ideal" is their "favored allocation."[clarification needed] In the classical interpretation, salience would be used to describe the different levels of preference between positions on policies.
  3. The third ("price") interpretation assumes that salience is not separate from ideals, as the classical view states, but that it is also not the same as ideals, as the valence view claims. This interpretation assumes that although a group of players, sharing benevolent preferences, all dissatisfied with the status quo, may still value different aspects differently when considering policy change. The price interpretation is favored over the other two for three reasons. First, it is more applicable. Unlike, the classical view, the price interpretation can be applied to a more wide-ranging set of situations. Second, the Price interpretation uses both the classical point of view and ideals in its evaluation of salience. Not only do you need to know a player’s weighted preferences but also their connection to their ideal point and the status quo. Therefore a change in salience can reflect a change in ideal point, status quo, or their weighted preferences. Third, this interpretation can be used to determine the elements stand in importance or worth. For example, players may organize and focus their time and energy into options with the biggest pay off. "That is they may look to see where they get the greatest ‘bang for their buck.’"[4]

Public opinion[edit]

A particular study[clarification needed] that researched salience and public opinion examined most of the agenda-setting research since the United States presidential election, 1968 which has been concerned with how the public salience of the issue is related to mass media’s ranking of these issues in terms of frequency of coverage and news play. The main hypothesis examined in this study is the ranking of certain issues by the media, which, in time, becomes the public agenda. More importantly, this article searched at whether the perceived public salience of the federal budget deficit is significantly related "to the amount of public knowledge about the issue, direction of public opinion regarding one possible solution to the issue, the strength of that opinion and political behavior such as writing letters, signing petitions, voting, etc". The result of this study concluded that "even though the federal deficit issue was one of the more salient to newspaper and voters during the 1988 election, it (the federal budget deficit) was not as emotional or dramatic as some of the other highly salient issues such as drug abuse or environmental pollution. Thus it seemed likely that public opinion regarding a solution to the federal budget deficit might be rather evenly split and would likely be more stable during the month of interviewing than would opinion on some of the other more dramatic issues being emphasized in news media coverage and political advertisements". In other words, issues that directly involve subjects, in this study, would conclude to be more salient than issues that do not involve them directly.

Marketing stimuli[edit]

Although salience is a stimulus response, is it a stimulus quality or an absolute quality?[5] Salience plays an important role in intergroup communication. According to Harwood, Raman and Hewstone, "Group salience is a key variable both in influencing quality of intergroup contact and in moderating the effects of intergroup contact on prejudicial attitudes."

In their study of family communication and intergroup relationships, "Group salience is an individual’s awareness of group memberships and respective group differences in an intergroup encounter (e.g., the salience of race in an interracial conversation)."[6] This study carefully examines the dynamics of intergroup relationships with respect to communication in a family context. Their study involved communicative aspects associated with age salience in the grandparent – grandchild relationship, the extent to which various dimension of communication predicts measures of salience, relational or inter-family proximity, and attitudes towards aging. According to Harwood, Raman and Hewstone, "Communication phenomena that were positively correlated with measures of age salience were negatively related to relational closeness. Only one communication measure (grandparents talking about the past) moderated the relationship between quality of contact with grandparent and attitudes toward older people. Specific communicative dimensions emerged that warrant further investigation in this and other intergroup contexts."[6]

Salience also from an applied communicative perspective plays an important role in our Consumer- Marketing world. In Gianluigi Guido’s book, The Salience of Marketing Stimuli: an incongruity – salience hypothesis on consumer awareness, "salience triggered by an external physical stimuli, like all marketing stimuli are before being internalized by consumers – to explain and predict the conditions under which a marketing stimulus, is able to achieve its communication outcomes in term of processing and memory."[5] The book clearly defines the history of the definition of salience and the ambiguities of arriving at an accurate definition. It also utilizes various theories to best define salience in our marketing world. Of the many theories, Guido uses aspects of Incongruity theory, Schema theory and an information processing model referred to as the In-salience hypothesis emphasizes the nature of prominence of salience.

"This model is part of wider Dichotic theory of salience, according to which a stimulus is salient either when it is incongruent in a certain context to a perceiver's schema, or when it is congruent in a certain context to a perceiver's goal. According to the four propositions of the model, in-salient stimuli are better recalled, affect both attention and interpretation, and are moderated by the degree of perceivers' comprehension (i.e., activation, accessibility, and availability of schemata), and involvement (i.e., personal relevance of the stimuli). Results of two empirical studies on print advertisements show that in-salient ad messages have the strongest impact in triggering ad processing which, in turn, leads to consumer awareness."[5]

Therefore, to define salience as appropriate as possible using the information, it would be apt to define it such that, salience is that intrinsic concept of the perceived or interpreted prominence of an attitude, and its manifestation on our choices.


  1. ^ Bedny, G. & Karwowski, W. (2004) "Meaning and sense in activity theory and their role in the study of human performance". International Journal of Ergonomics and Human Factors. (26:2, 121–140.)
  2. ^ Richard E Vatz, "The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation," Philosophy & Rhetoric 6 no. 3 (Summer 1968): 157. Quoted from The New Rhetoric; Perelman, 116-117. and Richard E Vatz, The Mythical Status of Situational Rhetoric: Implications for Rhetorical Critics' Relevance in the Public Arena. The Review of Communication 9 no. 1 (January 2009): 1-5.
  3. ^ Showers, C., & Cantor, N. (1985). Social cognition: A look at motivated strategies. Annual Review of Psychology, 36, 275–305.
  4. ^ The new shorter Oxford English dictionary. 1993. New York: Oxford University Press
  5. ^ a b c Guido, Gianluigi (2001). The Salience of Marketing Stimuli: An incongruity – salience hypothesis on consumer awareness. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  6. ^ a b Harwood, J., Raman, P., & Hewstone, M. (2006, July). The Family and Communication Dynamics of Group Salience. Journal of Family Communication, 6(3), 181–200. Retrieved July 29, 2008, doi:10.1207/s15327698jfc0603_2


  • Crano, W. D. (1995). Attitude strength and vested interest. In R. E. Petty & J. A. Krosnick (Eds.), Attitude strength: Antecedents and Consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 131–158.
  • Higgins, E. T., & Bargh, J. A. (1987). Social cognition and social perception. Annual Review of Psychology, 38, 369–425.
  • Humphreys & Garry, M & J (2000). Thinking about salience. Early drafts from Columbia. 1–55.
  • Sears, D. O., & Citrin, J. (1985). Tax revolt: Something for nothing in California (enlarged ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Weaver, D (1991). Issue salience and public opinion: Are thereconsequences of agenda-setting?. International journal of public opinion research. 1–16.
  • Vatz, R. E. (1973). The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric. 155-162.
  • Vatz, R. E. (2012, 2013) The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion. Dubuque, Iowa. Kendall Hunt.