How Psychologists Define Attention

Attention — Meaning, Types & its Determinants

How Psychologists Define Attention

The concept of Attention is studied in Cognitive Psychology with focus on explaining how we process the environmental information with the help of our sensory receptors.

The term attention is used for various perceptual processes, which involves selection and inclusion of certain sensory inputs as a part of our conscious experience.

The process of attention involves the very act of listening and concentrating on a specific object, topic or event, for fulfilling the desired goals.

Attention is a process, which does not only involve focusing or concentrating on one thing, but it is equally concerned about ignoring the competing stimuli or information which is available in the environment.

Attention allows a person to “tune out” the less relevant information, perception or sensation for that moment and instead focus more or prioritize more on the information which is more relevant.

Attention improves our concentration or consciousness on a selective object only, which helps in improving the clarity or focus on the object which is being perceived. Attention cannot be simply regarded to be a cognitive process only, as it is also influenced by emotions, attitude, interest and memory.

The process of attention takes place through our cognitive abilities, but the behavioural and emotional factors help in the selection of the relevant information or stimuli from the environment for focusing one’s consciousness around one event or thing for having a clear perception.

  • Attention is limited in terms of duration and capacity. It is for this limitation, that multi-tasking hardly bears productive results because of this limited attention capacity.
  • The process of attention involves selectively attending to certain specific variables while filtering out the less relevant or various other variables.
  • Attention is a key component of our cognitive system which starts right from the stage of our birth. For example, a newborn quickly responds to the environment’s stimuli such as loud noise by turning his head towards that direction.

Types of Attention

Classification of Attention by Ross: According to Ross, attention can be classified into Non-Volitional (Involuntary attention) and Volitional (Voluntary attention).

Non-Volitional (Involuntary Attention): This type of attention does not involve any role of will; instead it is aroused either by instincts and hence called enforced attention or is produced by our sentiments and therefore called as spontaneous non-volitional attention. Examples of non-volitional attention could be attention paid to the members of the opposite gender or a mother’s attention on noticing her crying child.

Volitional (Voluntary Attention): Volitional attention exercises the will and demands our conscious effort for arriving at a solution or achieving certain goals.

Un Non Volitional attention, Volitional attention is less spontaneous or automatic.

Examples of volitional attention could be paying attention while solving maths problem or attention focused on while answering examination questions.

Attention can further be categorized on the basis of needs or circumstances which we may be faced with:

Sustained Attention: It is the ability to pay attention to only one task by consciously concentrating on that task only for a long time enough and by avoiding all other forms of distractions or deviations.

This kind of attention requires a good deal of focus as well as determination for being able to concentrate on a given task by keeping away all the distractions.

Sustained attention examples could be reading a book, memorizing a chapter or following a classroom lecture.

Selective Attention: In this case, the listener chooses to pay attention to only a specific stimulus which is present in the environment while ignoring the other stimuli. This kind of attention does not depend on the stimulus but depends essentially on the attentive capabilities of an observer.

Divided Attention: In case of divided attention, the user pays attention to two or more tasks at the same time and is also sometimes regarded as Multi-tasking which involves juggling between two or more than two tasks at the same time. Its examples could be texting somebody while attending a meeting. Divided attention uses mental focus on a very large scale; hence because of divided attention the user may get exhausted very quickly.

Alternating Attention: Though this attention can be closely related to divided attention, but is different as in case of divided attention we split our attention between two tasks, while in case of alternating attention, the entire attention is shifted from one task to another or is done alternately.

Visual Attention: Visual attention makes use of the sensory organ eyes for paying attention to certain details. Visual attention pays attention to the details or inputs which are received by the eyes only and blurs out all the other stimuli which is present in the environment. Visual attention is put to use in case of advertising and reading.

Auditory Attention: This form of attention pays attention only to the sense of hearing only. Paying attention to an important announcement can be an example of auditory attention. Auditory and visual attention both function in conjunction with each other.

Determinants of Attention

Attention can be influenced by both external and internal factors.

External Factors: These are the factors which are external in nature and are usually governed by the characteristics of the stimuli.

These external factors could be related to the nature of the stimuli, the intensity as well as the size of the stimuli, the degree to which contrast, variety or change is present in the stimuli.

The extent to which the exposure to a stimulus is repeated will, also determine the strength of the attention. Moreover, a stimulus which is in a state of motion will be able to catch our attention more quickly than a stationery one.

Internal (Subjective) factors: The subjective factors which influence attention are interests, motive, mind set and our attitudes & moods.

It is believed that interest is the mother of attention, as we pay attention or focus on those objects about which we have interest. Similarly, our needs or motives equally govern our attention for specific events or objects.

Moreover, the mental readiness of a person to respond to certain stimuli or preparedness will also determine the attention level for that person.

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Notes on Attention: Meaning, Types and Determinants

How Psychologists Define Attention

In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Meaning and Definition of Attention 2. Types of Attention 3. Determinants.

Meaning and Definition of Attention:

Attention is the term used or given to the perceptual processes that select certain inputs for inclusion in our conscious experience, or awareness at any given time. It is the process involving the act of listening, and concentrating on a topic, object or event for the attainment of desired ends.

“Attention is the concentration of consciousness upon one object other than upon another”—Dumville.

“Attention is the process of getting an object or thought clearly before the mind”—Ross.

“Attention is being keenly alive to some specific factors in our environment. It is a preparatory adjustment for response”—Morgan.

Thus attention is essentially process and not a product. It helps in our awareness or consciousness of our environment, which is of selective kind, because in a given time, we can concentrate or focus our consciousness on a particular object only.

The concentration provided by the process of attention helps us in the clarity of the perception of the perceived object or phenomenon. Thus attention is not merely a cognitive factor but is essentially determined by emotions, interest, attitude and memory.

Thus attention is a process which is carried out through cognitive abilities and helped by emotional and behavioural factors to select something the various stimuli present in one’s environment and bring it in the centre of one’s consciousness in order to perceive it clearly for deriving the desired end.

Types of Attention:

Varieties are zeroed (nullified) by classification of Ross.

According to him attention is branched with:

(a) Non-volitional or Involuntary Attention:

This type of attention is aroused without the play of will. Here we attend to an object or condition without making any conscious effort, e.g. a mother’s attention towards her crying child, for example, attention towards the members of the opposite sex, and towards bright colours, etc.

The attention which is aroused by the instincts is called “enforced non-volitional attention”. A young man when we remark on his sex instinct or his curiosity, he becomes quite attentive in his task.

The other subtype of non-volitional attention, produced by the sentiments is called “spontaneous non-volitional attention”. It is the result of properly developed sentiment, towards the object, or idea of a person around which our sentiments are formed with.

(b) Volitional or Voluntary Attention:

When the ‘exercised will’ is called upon, it becomes volitional attention. Because it demands the conscious efforts on our part it is least automatic and spontaneous that of non-volitional attention. Attention payed at the time of solving an assigned problem of mathematics, answering question in an examination hall and so on comes under volitional attention category.

Volitional attention is further subdivided into two categories:

i. A single act of volition is sufficient to bring about attention in the case of implicit attention, e.g. for single act of will can arouse attention.

ii. In explicit volitional attention we need repeated acts of will to sustain it, e.g. here attention is obtained by repeated acts of will.

Determinants of Attention:

One of two types.

1. External factors or condition

2. Internal factors

I. External Factors or Condition:

These conditions are generally those characteristics of outside situation or stimuli which make the strongest aid for capturing our attention.

These can be classified as:

1. Nature of the stimulus:

All types of stimuli are not able to bring the same degree of attention. A picture attracts attention more readily than words. Among the pictures, the pictures of human beings invite more attention and those of human beings related to beautiful women or handsome men, who attract more attention. In this way an effective stimulus should always be chosen for capturing maximum attention.

2. Intensity and size of the stimulus:

In comparison with the weak stimulus, the immense stimulus attracts more attention of an individual. Our attention become easily directed towards a loud sound, a bright light or a strong smell, and also a large building will be more readily attended to, than a small one.

3. Contrast, change and variety:

Change and variety strike attention more easily than sameness and absence of change, e.g.

we do not notice the ticking sound of a clock put on the wall until it stops ticking, that is any change in the attention to which you have been attracted immediately capture your attention.

The factor, contact or change is highly responsible for capturing attention of the organism and contributes more than the intensity, size or nature of the stimulus.

4. Repetition of stimulus:

Repetition is the factor of great importance in securing attention. Because one may ignore a stimulus at first instance, but if it is repeated for several times it captures our attention, e.g.

a miss-spelled word is more ly to be noticed, if it occurs twice in the same paragraph than, if it occurs only once.

While giving lecture the important aspects of the speech are often repeated so that the attention of the audience can be easily directed to the valuable points.

5. Movement of the stimulus:

The moving stimulus catches our attention more quickly than a stimulus that does not move. We are more sensitive to objects that move in our field of vision, e.g. advertisers make use of this fact and try to catch the attention of people through moving electric lights.

Duration and Degree of Attention:

People may possess the ability to grasp a number of objects or in other words, to attend a number of stimuli in one short “presentation”. This ability of an individual is evaluated in terms of the span of attention, which differs from person to person and even situation to situation.

The term “span of attention” is designed in terms of the quality, size extent to which the perceptual field of an individual can be effectively organized in order to enable him to attain a number of things in a given spell of short duration.

II. Internal or Subjective Factors:

These factors predispose the individual to respond to objective factors, to attend to those activities that fulfill his desires and motives and suit his interest and attitude. It is the mental state of the perceiver.

Some of the subjective factors are:

1. Interest:

Interest is said to be the mother of attention. We attend to objects in which we have interest. We would to watch a movie or a serial in TV because we are interested in the subject around which the movie or serial revolves.

In any get-together if any subject of our interest is discussed that attracts our attention easily and makes us to participate in the discussion. In our day-to-day life we pay attention to the stimulus we are interested in.

2. Motives:

Our basic needs and motives to a great extent, determine our attention, thirst, hunger, sex, curiosity, fear are some of the important motives that influence attention, e.g. small children get attracted towards eatables.

3. Mind set:

Person’s readiness to respond determines his attention.

If we are expecting a stimulus, occurrence of that stimulus along with many other stimuli may not come in the way of attending to that particular stimulus.

At a time when students are expecting the examination time table by the end of the semester the time table put out on the notice board along with other notices would attract their attention easily.

4. Moods and attitudes:

What we attend to is influenced by the moods and attitudes. When we are disturbed or in angry mood, we notice the smallest mistake of others very easily.

wise our favourable and unfavourable attitudes also determine our attention. After discussing subjective and objective factors, we realize that these factors are interrelated.

How much or in what way we attend to a stimulus depends on subjective as well as objective factors.


Theories of Selective Attention

How Psychologists Define Attention

By Dr. Saul McLeod, updated updated 2018

We are constantly bombarded by an endless array of internal and external stimuli, thoughts, and emotions. Given this abundance of available data, it is amazing that we make sense of anything!

In varying degrees of efficiency, we have developed the ability to focus on what is important while blocking out the rest.

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.

This limited capacity for paying attention has been conceptualized as a bottleneck, which restricts the flow of information.  The narrower the bottleneck, the lower the rate of flow.

Broadbent's and Treisman's Models of Attention are all bottleneck models because they predict we cannot consciously attend to all of our sensory input at the same time.

Broadbent's Filter Model

Broadbent (1958) proposed that physical characteristics of messages are used to select one message for further processing and that all others are lost

Information from all of the stimuli presented at any given time enters an unlimited capacity sensory buffer.One of the inputs is then selected on the basis of its physical characteristics for further processing by being allowed to pass through a filter.

Because we have only a limited capacity to process information, this filter is designed to prevent the information-processing system from becoming overloaded. 

The inputs not initially selected by the filter remain briefly in the sensory buffer store, and if they are not processed they decay rapidly.  Broadbent assumed that the filter rejected the unattended message at an early stage of processing.

According to Broadbent the meaning of any of the messages is not taken into account at all by the filter.  All semantic processing is carried out after the filter has selected the message to pay attention to.

So whichever message(s) restricted by the bottleneck (i.e. not selective) is not understood.

Broadbent wanted to see how people were able to focus their attention (selectively attend), and to do this he deliberately overloaded them with stimuli.

One of the ways Broadbent achieved this was by simultaneously sending one message to a person's right ear and a different message to their left ear.This is called a split span experiment (also known as the dichotic listening task).

Dichotic Listening Task

The dichotic listening tasks involves simultaneously sending one message (a 3-digit number) to a person's right ear and a different message (a different 3-digit number) to their left ear.

Participants were asked to listen to both messages at the same time and repeat what they heard.  This is known as a 'dichotic listening task'.

Broadbent was interested in how these would be repeated back. Would the participant repeat the digits back in the order that they were heard (order of presentation), or repeat back what was heard in one ear followed by the other ear (ear-by-ear).

He actually found that people made fewer mistakes repeating back ear by ear and would usually repeat back this way.

Evaluation of Broadbent's Model

1. Broadbent's dichotic listening experiments have been criticized because:

  • The early studies all used people who were unfamiliar with shadowing and so found it very difficult and demanding.

      Eysenck and Keane (1990) claim that the inability of naive participants to shadow successfully is due to their unfamiliarity with the shadowing task rather than an inability of the attentional system.

  • Participants reported after the entire message had been played — it is possible that the unattended message is analyzed thoroughly but participants forget.
  • Analysis of the unattended message might occur below the level of conscious awareness.

      For example, research by Von Wright et al (1975) indicated analysis of the unattended message in a shadowing task.  A word was first presented to participants with a mild electric shock.

      When the same word was later presented to the unattended channel, participants registered an increase in GSR (indicative of emotional arousal and analysis of the word in the unattended channel).

  • More recent research has indicated the above points are important: e.g. Moray (1959) studied the effects of practice.  Naive subjects could only detect 8% of digits appearing in either the shadowed or non-shadowed message, Moray (an experienced 'shadower') detected 67%.
  • 2. Broadbent's theory predicts that hearing your name when you are not paying attention should be impossible because unattended messages are filtered out before you process the meaning — thus the model cannot account for the 'Cocktail Party Phenomenon'.

    3. Other researchers have demonstrated the 'cocktail party effect' (Cherry, 1953) under experimental conditions and have discovered occasions when information heard in the unattended ear 'broke through' to interfere with information participants are paying attention to in the other ear.

    This implies some analysis of the meaning of stimuli must have occurred prior to the selection of channels.  In Broadbent's model, the filter is based solely on sensory analysis of the physical characteristics of the stimuli.

    Treisman's Attenuation Model

    Treisman (1964) agrees with Broadbent's theory of an early bottleneck filter. However, the difference is that Treisman's filter attenuates rather than eliminates the unattended material.

    Attenuation is turning down the volume so that if you have 4 sources of sound in one room (TV, radio, people talking, baby crying) you can turn down or attenuate 3 in order to attend to the fourth.

    This means that people can still process the meaning of the attended message(s).

    In her 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.

    Treisman carried out dichotic listening tasks using the speech shadowing method.  Typically, in this method participants are asked to simultaneously repeat aloud speech played into one ear (called the attended ear) whilst another message is spoken to the other ear.

    For example, participants asked to shadow «I saw the girl furniture over» and ignore «me that bird green jumping fee», reported hearing «I saw the girl jumping over»

    Clearly, then, the unattended message was being processed for meaning and Broadbent's Filter Model, where the filter extracted on the basis of physical characteristics only, could not explain these findings.  The evidence suggests that Broadbent's Filter Model is not adequate, it does not allow for meaning being taken into account.

    Evaluation of Treisman's Model

    1. Treisman's Model overcomes some of the problems associated with Broadbent's Filter Model, e.g. the Attenuation Model can account for the 'Cocktail Party Syndrome'.

    2. Treisman's model does not explain how exactly semantic analysis works.

    3. The nature of the attenuation process has never been precisely specified.

    4. A problem with all dichotic listening experiments is that you can never be sure that the participants have not actually switched attention to the so called unattended channel.

     Download this article as a PDF

    APA Style References

    Broadbent, D. (1958). Perception and Communication. London: Pergamon Press.

    Cherry, E. C. (1953). Some experiments on the recognition of speech with one and with two ears. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 25, 975–979.

    Eysenck, M. W. & Keane, M. T. (1990). Cognitive psychology: a student's handbook. Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd.

    Moray, N. P. (1959). Attention in dichotic listening: Affective cues and the influence of instructions. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 11, 56–60.

    Treisman, A., 1964. Selective attention in man. British Medical Bulletin, 20, 12-16.

    Von Wright, J. M., Anderson, K., & Stenman, U. (1975). Generalization of conditioned GSRs in dichotic listening. In P. M. A. Rabbitt & S. Dornic (Eds.), Attention and performance (Vol. V, pp. 194–204). London: Academic Press.

    How to reference this article:

    McLeod, S. A. (2018, October 24). Selective attention. Simply Psychology.

     Download this article as a PDF



    How Psychologists Define Attention

    Attention refers to a wide variety of phenomena, including arousal, alertness, consciousness, and awareness.

    In general, however, attention is defined as both a process of concentration, such as trying to remember, under-stand, or search for information, and a mental resource that has limited capacity.

    Attention is selective in that it involves focusing on a certain stimulus to the exclusion of others.

    Focus of Attention

    The focus of attention may be an external stimulus (e.g., a telephone, another person, or traffic) or an internal mental event (e.g., thinking about your day or trying to recall a name or past event). Stimuli that stand out, that is, are more salient, tend to capture a person’s attention.

    The salience of a stimulus depends on the larger social context. Stimuli that are unusual (e.g., a woman in a group of men), personally significant (e.g., hearing your name), or that dominate the visual (e.g., standing in front of you) or auditory field (e.g.

    , a loud voice) are generally more salient.

    Causes and Consequences of Automatic and Controlled Attention

    With a great deal of practice, many mental processes may become automatic. For example, typing, riding a bike, driving a car, and identifying the meaning of words all require attention at first.

    However, repeated exposure or practice may reduce the amount of attention needed to perform these tasks. Ultimately, highly practiced tasks may become automatic.

    That is, they can be performed with little conscious awareness and with few or no cognitive resources.

    Being able to think and do things automatically seems highly desirable, because fewer cognitive resources are used, and thus people can pay greater attention to other stimuli. However, automaticity can sometimes be problematic. Automatic processes are hard to unlearn; undesirable mental processes or behavioral patterns may thus be difficult to change.

    For example, prejudice may occur relatively automatically, because people have come to associate negative characteristics with a certain ethnic group. Another undesirable consequence of automaticity is that the lack of conscious processing may result in errors.

    For example, people may go through the motions of driving a car without paying full attention and thus fail to notice a red light.

    Implications of Attention

    Researchers can determine the extent to which social judgment processes, such as stereotyping, are automatic or controlled by examining whether the process is disrupted as a result of increased demands on attention.

    Research participants may be asked to perform a social judgment task under high cognitive load, for example, while trying to keep in mind a long series of numbers. If the judgment process is disrupted (the judgment is more difficult to make) when cognitive demands are increased, then the process is considered to be controlled.

    If the social judgment process is not disrupted, even when other cognitive demands are high, then the process is considered to be automatic. For example, stereotypes are less ly to come to mind when cognitive demands are high, indicating that stereotypes do not come to mind in a completely automatic way.

    However, after stereotypes come to mind, people who are under high cognitive load are more ly to use them, indicating that stereotype use is a controlled process.


    1. Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Cognition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
    2. Bargh, J. A. (1982). Attention and automaticity in the processing of self-relevant information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 425-436.
    3. Gilbert, D. T., & Hixon, J. G. (1991). The trouble of thinking: Activation and application of stereotypic beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 509-517.
    4. Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition: Making sense of people. Cambridge: MIT Press.


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