Attention (Psychology)

One of the primary topics in cognitive psychology is Attention. You might be here because you’re studying for a test, or perhaps you’re 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 of your ears listening to 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 of time. 

What is Attention in Psychology?

Attention is defined in psychology as selectively concentrating our consciousness on certain sensory inputs or processes. It includes our ability to focus on information that is 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 
  • Treisman’s Attenuation Model
  • Change Blindness
  • Inattention Blindness
  • Subliminal Advertising
  • The Stroop Effect
  • Multitasking
  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

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 where we could pick what to listen to. For example, if you’re listening to your sister who has a higher-pitched voice, your attention would “bottleneck” and you wouldn’t hear your brother speaking in the background. 

Broadbents Filter Model of Attention

Broadbent’s filter model has a few holes, one of which is the Cocktail Party Effect. Imagine yourself at a party and you’re deep in conversation with a beautiful woman until a guy halfway across the room says your name. Somehow, you hear your name. This means that you didn’t “bottleneck” your attention to just the beautiful woman…

Treisman’s Attenuation Model (1964)

Anne Treisman was actually 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.

Treismans Attenuation Model of Attention

When you’re 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 was low but low enough that you still heard it, and then you turned 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
  • Shadowing
  • Pertinence Model of Attention
  • Norman’s Pertinence Model
  • Johnston and Heinz’s Multimode Theory

Inattentional and Change Blindness

Inattentional Blindness

Another very similar effect is called Inattentional Blindness. This is a person’s failure to notice something that is 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 now known as the “Invisible Gorilla Experiment.” They told participants that 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 for a moment. 

The researchers asked participants if they would see 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!” 

Change Blindness

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 just how much we can miss! How many of these errors have you actually 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

Subliminal Advertising

When it comes to attention in psychology, one of the most interesting topics is subliminal advertising. Is it a real thing? Does it really increase profits? 

There are many studies on subliminal advertising, but the conclusion is simple: they don’t really 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 own ads! 

This blog post from HubSpot lists a few ways that 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 really interesting thing that happens 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. 

the stroop effect

It’s quite difficult, isn’t it?

There are many theories for why this happens:

  • Speed of Processing Theory
  • Parallel Distributed Processing
  • Automaticity theory 

Read all about these theories, as well as variations on The Stroop Effect, right here!

Multitasking

One of the practical applications of studying attention is our understanding of how multitasking works. In almost all of the studies I’ve looked at, multitasking greatly decreases the effectiveness of both tasks. In other words, multitasking seems to be a burden, more than a productivity trick. 

Why? Cognitive psychologists say it’s because switching tasks has a cost. When your brain switches from one complex task, to another complex task, there is a cost you must pay to “switch gears”. This shows that attention doesn’t like to be divided and that concentrated focus for long periods of time is better than unconcentrated “multitasking”.

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 actually take more time in the end 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.”

It’s led me to believe that multitasking is a myth. And though it can be possible to multitask for short periods of time, you may benefit more from mindfully batching tasks or just sticking to one task at a time. 

ADHD 

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

In a world that asks us to constantly multitask, paying attention for long periods of time can be tough. Notifications take our minds away from the tasks at hand. The problems of the world, 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 reached out asking 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 the sign of neurodivergence. 

Free ADHD Test

Often, people take ADHD tests to determine whether they need to see a medical professional. Experts believe that between 2-4% of the adult population struggles with ADHD, although diagnosis for ADHD can be difficult. Men and women often display different symptoms of ADHD, and symptoms may differ as a person ages. 

Although an ADHD test is available on this website, it is in no way 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.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.