What is Selective Attention?
Selective attention is the process of directing our awareness to relevant stimuli while ignoring irrelevant stimuli in the environment.
This is an important process as there is a limit to how much information can be processed at a given time, and selective attention allows us to tune out insignificant details and focus on what is important.
Selective attention is the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time. Attention is a limited resource, so selective attention allows us to tune out unimportant details and focus on what matters. This differs from inattentional blindness, which is when you focus hard on one thing and fail to notice unexpected things entering your visual field
At any given moment, we are subjected to a constant barrage of sensory information. The blare of a car horn from the street outside, the chatter of your friends, the click of the keys as you type a paper for school, the hum of the heater as it keeps your room warm on a brisk autumn day. But in most cases, we don’t pay attention to each and every one of these sensory experiences. Instead, we center our attention on certain important elements of our environment while other things blend into the background or pass us by completely unnoticed.
There are two major models describing how visual attention works.
- The “spotlight” model works much like it sounds—it proposes that visual attention works similar to that of a spotlight. Psychologist William James suggested that this spotlight includes a focal point in which things are viewed clearly. The area surrounding this focal point, known as the fringe, is still visible, but not clearly seen. Finally, the area outside of the fringe area of the spotlight is known as the margin.2
- The second approach is known as the “zoom-lens” model. While it contains all the same elements of the spotlight model, it also suggests that we are able to increase or decrease the size of our focus much like the zoom lens of a camera. However, a larger focus area also results in slower-processing since it includes more information so the limited attentional resources must be distributed over a larger area.3
Some of the best-known experiments on auditory attention are those performed by psychologist Colin Cherry. Cherry investigated how people are able to track certain conversations while tuning others out, a phenomenon he referred to as the “cocktail party” effect.4
Theories of Selective Attention
Theories of selective attention tend to focus on when stimulus information is attended to, either early in the process or late.
Broadbent’s Filter Model
One of the earliest theories of attention was Donald Broadbent’s filter model. Building on the research conducted by Cherry, Broadbent used an information-processing metaphor to describe human attention. He suggested that our capacity to process information is limited in terms of capacity, and our selection of information to process takes place early on in the perceptual process.5
In order to do this, we utilize a filter to determine which information to attend to. All stimuli are first processed based upon physical properties that include color, loudness, direction, and pitch. Our selective filters then allow for certain stimuli to pass through for further processing while other stimuli are rejected.
Treisman’s Attenuation Theory
Treisman suggested that while Broadbent’s basic approach was correct, it failed to account for the fact that people can still process the meaning of attended messages. Treisman proposed that instead of a filter, attention works by utilizing an attenuator that identifies a stimulus based on physical properties or by meaning.6
Think of the attenuator like a volume control—you can turn down the volume of other sources of information in order to attend to a single source of information. The “volume” or intensity of those other stimuli might be low, but they are still present.
In experiments, Treisman demonstrated that participants were still able to identify the contents of an unattended message, indicating that they were able to process the meaning of both the attended and unattended messages.
Memory Selection Models
Other researchers also believed that Broadbent’s model was insufficient and that attention was not based solely on a stimulus’s physical properties. The cocktail party effect serves as a prime example. Imagine that you are at a party and paying attention to the conversation among your group of friends. Suddenly, you hear your name mentioned by a group of people nearby. Even though you were not attending to that conversation, a previously unattended stimulus immediately grabbed your attention based on meaning rather than physical properties.7
Resource Theories of Selective Attention
More recent theories tend to focus on the idea of attention being a limited resource and how those resources are divvied up among competing sources of information. Such theories propose that we have a fixed amount of attention available and that we must then choose how we allocate our available attentional reserves among multiple tasks or events.
Several factors can influence selective attention in spoken messages. The location from where the sound originates can play a role. For example, you are probably more likely to pay attention to a conversation taking place right next to you rather than one several feet away.