Selective Attention: What Is It? How Can You Test and Improve It?

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Last Update Date: 01 April 2020

When we focus our attention on anything, we actually choose to ignore many things. For example, imagine going to a bookstore. There is a specific book you want to buy and you are walking between the bookshelves to find that book.

Perhaps you are passing through hundreds of books without actually noticing any of them. On the other hand, your eyes actually see all of them and possibly record them deep into your mind, but you don't even realise it. This here is a great selective attention example.

Now that you have an understanding of the concept, let’s go over the selective attention definition.

What is Selective Attention?

If we need to define selective attention we can call it the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time. Our attention is limited. So to use this limited resource, we need selective attention, which allows us to ignore details that are not important.

What is selective attention

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How Does Selective Attention Work?

The term “cocktail party effect” is also used to describe selective attention psychology, especially in the Memory Selection Model. Because while we're at a party, there are many things that can distract us like music, light, and many other people talking. However, we can still focus on one conversation with a close friend. On the other hand, when our name is called among all the intense stimuli in this background, this will grab our attention.

So which of the following is the reason for human attention being selective?

It is proven that the capacity of our brains to take care of everything around us is very limited, so it is impossible for us to pay attention to each of these sensory experiences. Therefore, while our brain focuses our attention on some important elements of our environment, it puts all other stimuli in the background.

Theories of Selective Attention

In cognitive psychology, there is more than one selective attention theory, which is focused on when our brains react and interact with stimulating information from outside.

selective attention

Broadbent Filter Model

This model was defined by Donald Broadbent in 1958. He used a filtering metaphor of information processing to describe attention. Broadbent suggested that our filtering of information occurs early on in the perceptual process. Physical characteristics like colours, loudness or direction of the stimulants processed before were used to select or reject a stimulus in later operations.

Selective attention theory Broadbent’s Filter Model

Treisman’s Attenuation Theory

Treisman proposed in his selective attention theory that instead of the filtering method specified by Broadbent's model, attention works by using an attenuator that defines a stimulant based on physical properties or meaning.

You can think of the attenuator as a controller or selective filters. You can mute other stimulus sources to join a single stimulus. Although the intensity of other stimuli is low, they still exist.

Selective attention Treisman’s Attenuation Theory

Memory Selection Models

According to the Memory Selection Model, the stimuli that we will pay attention to and the stimuli that we will not pay attention to pass through the first filter. It is then ranked in the second stage according to the actual meaning of the message content. Stimulants, which attract our attention by passing through the meaning criteria are transferred to short-term memory.

Resource Theories of Selective Attention

More recent theories suggest that human attention can interact with limited stimuli and tends to explain how these resources are divided among competing stimuli. Hence, source theories appear to be a much more effective metaphor to explain the phenomenon of attention divided into complex stimuli and tasks.

Examples of Selective Attention

Cocktail Party Effect

As we’ve mentioned before, although there are many stimuli around in crowded and noisy environments such as parties, our brain selects certain stimuli and focuses on them.

Selective attention example coctail party effect

The Monkey Business

As in the most famous selective attention test, “Gorilla Business” that we’ll mention further in our article, if you have a specific target to focus on, your brain just follows your target. So it doesn’t notice any other unusual stimuli. Here is a version of Gorilla Business:

Visual Selective Attention

Perhaps we are exposed to millions of ads every day on the way to work or on the road. We don't even realize that we've seen many of these. But some, on the other hand, manage to attract our attention, especially if they address our current needs or taste. This shows that these advertisements have contacted with us as a stimulus by going through our selective perception.

Selective attention example

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Gorilla Selective Attention Test

In the Invisible Gorilla experiment conducted by Simons and Chabris in 1999, a video is shown to the participants. In the video, two separate groups of people, one in black shirts and the other in white shirts, pass the ball to each other. Participants are told to count the number of times the players in white shirts passed the ball.

In the middle of the game, a gorilla enters the screen. He walks through the players, stands in the middle, hits his chest, then walks off the screen again.

"Did you see the Gorilla?" At the end of the video, when asked, it turns out that more than half of the subjects did not even notice the gorilla.

Based on this experiment, it is possible to say that we have missed most of what is happening around us and that we have no idea about all these events and stimuli that we missed before we even realized.

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Selective and Divided Attention Comparison

Selective Attention Divided Attention
Mental focus is on a single task or idea at once while ignoring others Mental focus is on multiple tasks or ideas at once by giving some attention to each
Increase the amount of attention being placed on the task or idea because there is a single point of focus Decrease the amount of attention being placed on any task or idea if there are multiple focuses going on at once
Excellence in tuning out distractions and switching tasks Trouble in tuning out distractions and switching tasks
Strengthens cognitive ability Weakens cognitive ability
Reduces the rate of making mistakes Improves the rate of making mistakes
Higher in people with ADHD Lower in people with ADHD
Allows you to miss important side information Prevents missing important side information


What is selective attention in psychology?

It is to focus on certain stimuli in the environment by ensuring that important stimuli are distinguished from peripheral or incidental ones. Selective attention is typically measured by instructing participants to join some sources of information, but to ignore others at the same time and then determine their effectiveness in doing so.

Which experimental result caused problems for Broadbent’s Filter Model of selective attention?

The result of the “Dear Aunt Jane” experiment.

What classic psychological experiment was used to evaluate selective attention?

The physical experiment called the Invisible Gorilla Test was used to evaluate selective attention.

Explain what it means that disorganized thoughts may result from a breakdown in selective attention

Irrelevant, minute stimuli may distract attention from a bigger event. This selective attention difficulty is one of the dozens of cognitive differences associated with schizophrenia.

How can you measure selective attention?

Selective attention can be measured with the Test of Everyday Attention (TEA) by using everyday materials. The test, found in 1994, can be conducted on people between the ages of 18-80.

Why is selective attention important?

Selective attention is important because it allows the human brain to work more effectively. Selective attention acts as a filter to ensure that the brain works best in relation to its tasks.

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When do most people master learning strategies such as rehearsal and selective attention?

Most people master learning strategies such as rehearsal and selective attention in elementary school.

How does selective attention direct our perceptions?

We selectively participate and process a very limited part of the incoming information, which has too many obstacles and transfers our attention from one thing to another. When we carefully focus on a task, we often show careless blindness to other events.

What were the findings of the experiment that yielded scientific evidence for selective attention?

A. Recall was equally bad for both ears.

B. Recall was worse for the attended ear.

C. Recall was equally good for both ears.

D. Recall was better for the attended ear.

What sorts of stimuli attract our selective attention?

Unusual stimuli or intense stimuli attract our selective attention.