One of the primary topics in cognitive psychology is Attention. You might be here because you're studying for a test or writing a research paper on selective attention theories. Either way, we strive to give you the best overall information on the topic so you can continue your studies and contributions to psychology.
Reading this page, there are many inputs to your brain:
- Information presented in front of your eyes on the screen
- The feeling of your feet on the floor
- Sounds in your ears from ambient noise
- The feeling of your fingers on the mouse or phone
When it comes to attention, you can't focus on all of these at once. However, you can focus on one for a certain period.
What is Attention in Psychology?
Psychology defines attention as concentrating our consciousness on certain sensory inputs or processes. It includes our ability to focus on information relevant to a task at hand while ignoring other useless information.
Many psychologists have studied and created theories regarding attention. On this page, we will briefly go over some of these theories. More detailed information about these theories can be found on our website. Click around and pay attention to what you're reading about attention!
Some important theories and phenomena to know regarding attention include:
- Broadbent's Filter Model: A model suggesting that individuals have limited attentional resources, filtering out stimuli based on physical characteristics.
- Treisman's Attenuation Model: Proposes that instead of filtering out information thoroughly, we lower the volume on unattended stimuli, thus "attenuating" them.
- Change Blindness: The failure to notice significant changes in a visual scene.
- Inattention Blindness: The inability to notice something fully visible because attention is directed elsewhere.
- Subliminal Advertising: Advertising messages presented below the threshold of conscious awareness.
- The Stroop Effect: A cognitive interference where the brain struggles to differentiate the color of a word from the word's text.
- Multitasking: Engaging in multiple tasks simultaneously often reduces the effectiveness of each task.
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Selective Attention Theories
Broadbent's Filter Model (1958)
In one of the earliest attention models, Donald Broadbent proposed that we filtered out information based on physical characteristics. He said we had a filter to pick what to listen to. For example, if you listen to your sister with a higher-pitched voice, your attention would experience a "bottleneck," a term used to describe a point in the process where the flow of information gets restricted or limited. As a result of this bottlenecking, you wouldn't hear your brother speaking in the background.
Broadbent's filter model, including the Cocktail Party Effect, has a few holes. Imagine yourself at a party and deep conversing with a beautiful woman until a guy halfway across the room says your name. Somehow, you hear your name. This means you didn't "bottleneck" your attention to just the beautiful woman...
Treisman's Attenuation Model (1964)
Anne Treisman was one of Broadbent's students and continued his work on attention theory. She theorized that instead of "bottlenecking" what information passed to our attention, we just "attenuated" it. Think of this like a volume knob, where we can turn down and turn up certain stimuli.
When talking to your sister, you turn down everything else so you can listen attentively. When someone else says your name at a party, the volume is low but low enough that you still hear it, and then you turn the volume up because your name is an important word to you.
These two theories are just a few selective attention theories. On our page, you will be able to learn about many more theories and phenomena regarding selective attention, including:
- The Cocktail Party Effect (why you pay attention to your name when at a cocktail party or other noisy event)
- A Dichotic Listening Task
- Pertinence Model of Attention
- Norman’s Pertinence Model
- Johnston and Heinz's Multimode Theory
Inattentional and Change Blindness
Another very similar effect is called Inattentional Blindness. This is a person's failure to notice something fully visible because their attention was focused on something else. For example, when you look down at your phone while driving, you might not notice a deer trying to cross or another car changing lanes.
Examples of Inattentional Blindness: The Invisible Gorilla
One of the most powerful examples of inattentional blindness is the "Invisible Gorilla" study. This website has a whole page dedicated to the impact and significance of this study. For now, here's just some brief information about how the study was conducted:
"In 1999, Chris Chabris and Dan Simons conducted an experiment called the “Invisible Gorilla Experiment.” They told participants they would watch a video of people passing around basketballs. In the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla suit walked through the circle momentarily.
The researchers asked participants if they had seen the gorilla. Of course, they would, right? Not so fast. Before the researchers asked participants to watch the video, they asked them to count how many times people in the white shirts passed the basketball. In this initial experiment, 50% of the participants failed to see the gorilla!"
Relevance and Significance
The "Invisible Gorilla" experiment is more than just a quirky trick on the mind. It underscores a fundamental aspect of human cognition: our attention is limited, even when focused intently on a task. It reveals the boundaries of human perception and illustrates how easy it is for us to miss even glaringly obvious events when our attention is directed elsewhere. This has broader implications in driving safety, aviation, and everyday tasks. It reminds us that our perception of the world isn't always as complete or accurate as we believe and that there are limitations to our conscious awareness.
Change Blindness is a phenomenon that occurs when a participant is shown two different stimuli but doesn't notice any changes. Why is this important? It's used as evidence against eyewitness testimonies and situations like distracted driving.
Change blindness is slightly different from inattentional blindness. Here's what the American Psychological Association has to say about the difference:
"Inattentional blindness is one of two perceptual phenomena that have begun to change scientists' view of visual perception, from one of a videotape to something far less precise. Beginning in the 1970s, researchers began to recognize a phenomenon called "change blindness," finding that people often fail to detect change in their visual field as long as the change occurs during an eye movement or when people's view is otherwise interrupted. Such findings have spurred debates about how--and indeed, whether--the brain stores and integrates visual information."
Examples of Change Blindness: Continuity Errors
Change blindness often prohibits us from noticing errors in movies and TV shows! The following examples from our change blindness post show how much we can miss! How many of these errors have you noticed?
- "In the movie New Moon, Jacob has a new tattoo. But the location of that tattoo is rarely consistent throughout the movie! It appears on the top of his arm, and then lower down his arm in other shots.
- In Blade Runner, Zhora’s stunt double is shown. A lot. With some pretty obvious close-up shots.
- Also in Blade Runner, Roy Batty dies in a storm at night. Shortly after, a pair of doves is released – to a cloudless, beautiful sunny day.
- In one of the biggest scenes of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, we watch Jim Carrey solve a mystery as Vincent Cadby plays chess next to him. In a later shot, all of the chess pieces are gone! Even later, the chess pieces come back!"
Notable Phenomena in The Study of Attention
Regarding attention in psychology, subliminal advertising is one of the most interesting topics. Is it a real thing? Does it increase profits?
There are many studies on subliminal advertising, but the conclusion is simple: they don't work. Informal and formal studies on subliminal advertising show that the attempts to encourage an audience's behavior through subliminal advertising have no significant effect on their behavior. That doesn't stop brands from using it in their ads!
This blog post from HubSpot lists a few ways brands add "subtle" messages to their advertisements and logos. Whether or not these moves work to influence customers is up in the air, but they are certainly great examples of design and creativity!
The Stroop Effect
The Stroop Effect is a compelling phenomenon when the brain shows decreased reaction time while focusing on two stimuli.
The best way to explain the Stroop effect and how it relates to attention is to have you attempt to read the colors below. Don't focus on reading the words, instead, say the color of each word aloud.
It's quite difficult.
There are many theories for why this happens:
- Speed of Processing Theory
- Parallel Distributed Processing
- Automaticity theory
Read all about these theories and variations on The Stroop Effect right here!
One of the practical applications of studying attention is our understanding of how multitasking works. When most people think of multitasking, they imagine themselves effectively juggling several tasks simultaneously. However, in reality, what they're often doing is not genuine simultaneous multitasking but rather "task-switching." This is a rapid shifting of attention from one task to another and back again.
In almost all of the studies I've looked at, what is typically termed multitasking greatly decreases the effectiveness of both tasks. In other words, what many perceive as multitasking seems to be a burden more than a productivity trick.
Why? Cognitive psychologists attribute this decrease in performance to the inherent "switch costs" of task-switching. When your brain transitions from one complex task to another, it requires time and cognitive resources to "switch gears." Even if these switches seem instantaneous, they add up and significantly detract from our overall efficiency. This indicates that attention doesn't prefer to be divided, and a concentrated focus for extended periods is more productive than perpetually switching attention between tasks.
The American Psychological Association shares this idea more eloquently:
“[A]lthough switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may take more time and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”
There are exceptions, of course. Some simpler, automated tasks might be performed simultaneously without detriment. For instance, walking while talking. But for tasks requiring deeper cognitive processing, it's clear that "multitasking" is often detrimental. This has led me to believe that the popular notion of multitasking as a productivity tool is largely a myth. Though short bursts might feel productive, you might benefit more from mindfully batching tasks or focusing wholeheartedly on one task at a time.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Paying attention for long periods can be tough in a world requiring us to multitask constantly. Notifications take our minds away from the tasks at hand. The world's problems, the problems in our homes, and other issues may keep us occupied when we're trying to work. Is our inability to pay attention a result of our environment, or the sign of a larger issue encoded in our DNA?
The answer may surprise you if you have been struggling to pay attention. A Reddit user asked users on the ADHD subreddit how they knew they had ADHD as an adult. Here's one response:
"Female, 25, did very good in school up until age 15. Then it started getting somewhat harder, but with minimal effort I could still make it. In uni I used caffeïne to study. Struggled all the way through until my graduation project from my tech U master. It was too much (along with other things in my personal life) and I broke down.
I have always felt like there was something off, like a blockage in my head as you describe. Also, I never felt really energized, unless it was after a long vacation with my parents in my childhood. I was dreamy, worried, felt emotions very strong and switched between them very quickly.
After my breakdown I researched my symptoms (no concentration, tired, irritable, etc) and came to ADHD. Went to the doctor with that, got a reference to a psychologist, got tested and here we are. Now I have therapy and I have to deal with being overworked, depression and (performance) anxiety due to 'untreated' (it can't be cured) ADHD."
The inability to maintain focus or attention may be a sign of neurodivergence.
Free ADHD Test
Often, people take ADHD tests to determine whether they need to see a medical professional. Experts believe 2-4% of adults struggle with ADHD, although diagnosis for ADHD can be difficult. Men and women often display different symptoms of ADHD, which may differ as a person ages.
Although an ADHD test is available on this website, it is no longer a replacement for a diagnosis. Reach out to a medical professional if you believe you are struggling with ADHD or another type of neurodivergence.
There's a lot to learn about attention and psychology! Keep reading to discover how our minds pay attention to the world around us.