Selective attention refers to the ability to intentionally focus awareness on specific aspects of a situation or information. This allows a person to ignore irrelevant or distracting elements so only certain information is processed.
There is an incredible amount of “data” in our environment. It includes visual and auditory stimuli, internal thoughts and memories, as well as subtle olfactory input and even internal bodily sensations.
Despite all that is happening around us, each person has a limited cognitive capacity. This means they can only think about a limited amount of information at a time.
Without selective attention, our consciousness would be a stream of unrelated thoughts that are unorganized and incomprehensible.
Selective attention is extremely beneficial. It allows us to solve problems, follow logical conclusions, and formulate strategoes.
Selective Attention Examples
- Conversations in a café: Being able to have a conversation with another person in a noisy restaurant.
- Reading with the TV on: Reading a book while your partner is sitting next to you watching TV.
- Delivering a presentation: Delivering an oral presentation on the pros and cons of various research methodologies in front of your classmates and professor.
- Phone conversations in busy places: Talking on the phone to a relative in a house full of energetic children.
- Listening and driving: Listening to an audiobook while driving to work.
- Playing sports with crowds: Playing in a well-attended basketball tournament in the presence of a raucous crowd, enthusiastic cheerleaders, and school band.
- Surgery: Performing an emergency medical procedure in a busy ER.
- Mental filtering: Also known as negativity bias, this involves paying attention to the negatives and ignoring the positives. This can lead to negative consequences like anxiety and depression.
- Listening to a lecture: Being able to follow the lecture of a professor in class even though there are many distractions in the room.
- Dealing with snoring: Writing an academic paper in your dorm room while your roommate snores and other residents are having a party in the hallway.
- Directing attention while driving: Driving through the city and avoiding collisions with other vehicles, pedestrians, and bike riders.
- Belief perseverance: Selective attention may also refer to the cognitive bias of only paying attention to things that confirm your point of view, leading you into an echo chamber.
Case Studies of Selective Attention
1. Selective Attention And Facial Cues
The human face presents a wealth of information to the viewer. One can discern familiarity, age, gender, ethnic origins, attractiveness, direction of gaze, and emotional state. The human face even possesses cues regarding estrogen and testosterone levels.
That is an incredible amount of information that can all be processed from a mere glance. So, an interesting question emerges when pondering the rapid-fire processing of facial cues: are they processed automatically or a result of selective attention?
In a review of relevant neuroimaging studies, Vuilleumier (2002) suggests that the processing of emotionally balanced facial cues is not a function of selective attention, but rather occurs automatically:
“There is a remarkable convergence of behavioral and neurophysiological evidence suggesting that our brain is equipped with mechanisms enhancing the detection of and reaction to emotional facial information, producing involuntary effects on attention and other behavioural responses” (p. 297).
2. The Spotlight Theory Of Selective Visual Attention
There is a famous scene in the modern Sherlock Holmes TV series Elementary that shows Sherlock watching multiple TVs at the same time. Because his cognitive capacity is so astounding, he is able to process the information from all sources, simultaneously.
This ability runs counter to the spotlight theory (Posner et al., 1980) of selective visual attention which states that we can only focus on one aspect of an image at a time.
Our attention scans an image, similar to how a spotlight shines on a specific area. But, our ability to process that image is limited to the area in the spotlight.
The area that surrounds the spotlight is called the fringe. Although the fringe is visible, it is not processed consciously because of limited selective attention.
McMains and Somers (2004) conducted a somewhat complicated study involving fMRI and the visual presentation of stimuli to determine if this was in fact true.
In a review of the study by Tong (2004):
“Overall, the study provides compelling fMRI and psychophysical evidence demonstrating that the spotlight of visual attention can indeed be divided” (p. 525).
3. The Cocktail Party Effect
One example of selective attention that we can all relate to is commonly referred to as the cocktail party effect. It has to do with a person’s ability to filter out the conversation happening around them and focus only on the conversation in which they are engaged.
The term was initially coined by Cherry (1953):
“How do we recognize what one person is saying when others are speaking at the same time (the “cocktail party problem”)?” (pp. 975-976).
Cherry conducted several experiments that required participants to listen to two different messages at the same time. This experimental procedure was later termed the dichotic listening task.
Research has revealed that the ability to separate two simultaneous messages can be affected by: the gender of the speaker, direction of where the message is coming from, as well as the pitch and rate of speech.
4. Selective Attention And Socioeconomic status
Socioeconomic status can have substantial effects on children’s academic performance, physical and mental health, and career trajectory (for a review see Ursache & Noble, 2016). These differences can be the result of numerous factors, including quality of schools and available extra-curricular resources.
Wray et al. (2017) studied 47 children ages 3-4 years old (33 from low SES backgrounds and 14 from high SES backgrounds).
The researchers used a dichotic listening paradigm that involved each child sitting between two speakers. They listened to two simultaneously presented stories, each one through different speakers, but were instructed to only attend to one.
Children were then asked several comprehension questions.
The results indicated that:
“In Year 1, although the HSES group had slightly higher accuracy on the comprehension questions than the LSES group, this difference was not statistically significant…” and “From Year 1 to Year 2, the LSES group showed a significant improvement in accuracy on the comprehension questions.”
So, differences in selective attention between the two groups were minimal, and became less pronounced over the subsequent year.
5. The Psychology Of Magic
Everybody loves a good magic trick. Even though we all know there is no such thing as “magic,” most of us are still in awe at even the simplest of tricks that every magician performs.
Take for example, the disappearing coin trick. The coin is made to disappear as it passes from one hand to the next. We’ve all seen this trick a hundred times over, and we even know how it’s done; the coin is not passed, but rather palmed.
The magician knows the psychology of the mind very well, and they rely on that understanding to direct our attention where they want. That’s called attention control and relies on our inattentional blindness.
One of the key principles in magic is misdirection; the magician tricks the audience into shadowing one hand with their eyes, while he carries out an action in the other hand that would normally be noticed.
Every good magician is also a good student of psychology.
Selective attention is an extremely important characteristic of thinking processes. The ability to control one’s attention to intentionally focus on specific features of a situation is essential to mankind’s progress.
Without this ability, scientific analysis and basic discourse with friends would be impossible to achieve; magicians would all be failures and athletes unable to perform in front of crowds.
Selective attention allows us to read in noisy environments, deliver oral presentations to colleagues, and follow the ramblings of our professors even though our imagination is tempted by all kinds of other considerations.
Barnhart, A., & Goldinger, S.D. (2014). Blinded by magic: Eye-movements reveal the misdirection of attention. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01461
Cherry, E. C (1953). Some experiments on the recognition of speech, with one and with two ears. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 25(5), 975–979.
James, W. (1890). Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.
McMains, S.A., & Somers, D.C. (2004). Multiple spotlights of attentional
selection in human visual cortex. Neuron, 42, 677–686.
Posner, M.I., Snyder, C.R., & Davidson, B.J. (1980). Journal of Experimental Psychology, 109, 160–174.
Stevens, C. & Bavelier, D. (2012). The role of selective attention on academic foundations: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 2(1), 30-48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2011.11.001
Tong, F. (2004). Splitting the spotlight of visual attention. Neuron, 42(4), 524-526. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2004.05.005
Ursache, A., & Noble, K. G., (2016). Socioeconomic status, white matter, and executive function in children. Brain and Behavior, 6(10), e00531. https://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.531
Vuilleumier, Patrik. (2002). Facial expression and selective attention. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 15 (3), 291-300. https://doi.org/10.1097/00001504-200205000-00011
Wray, H. A., Stevens, C., Pakulak, E., Isbell, E., Bell, T., & Neville, H. (2017). Development of selective attention in preschool-age children from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 26, 101-111. https://dpi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2017.06.006