Attention

As the name suggests, attention refers to focusing on or observing something. Although the name is simple, the actual process s far from simplistic. Many factors affecting attention in psychology research have been identified. Did you know if you have a lot on your mind, then you're less likely to be able to attend to something, or if you do not put conscious effort into remembering information, you most likely will forget it? 

Attention Attention

Create learning materials about Attention with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Contents
Table of contents
    • First, we will review the attention definition in psychology.
    • Then, the explanation will review perception and attention in cognitive psychology.
    • Next, the types of attention in psychology will be reviewed.
    • After this, the factors affecting attention in psychology will be discussed.
    • Last, the theories of attention in psychology will be presented.

    Attention Definition: Psychology

    Attention is a whole field of theory and research in cognitive psychology.

    Attention is the cognitive process that involves observing or becoming aware of something; this does not have to be in your peripheral visual field.

    An example is when we try to recall memories, we have to attend to them to bring them from the long-term to the short-term memory store. Now we don't actually see the memory but instead, focus on it.

    The brain receives an overwhelming amount of information; it has limited resources, so it cannot process every single thing we see. This is where the process of attention comes in.

    The attention process can be compared to an analogy of a filter. During the process, it filters through stimuli that we determine as important, e.g. when we focus on it and ignore irrelevant stimuli.

    Perception and Attention in Cognitive Psychology

    Perception and attention have an interdependent relationship regarding attending to stimuli.

    Perception is the ability to observe and be aware of the stimuli in the environment, such as objects, people or events. Perception is not limited to what we see; it is also related to our other senses, e.g. what we hear, touch, smell and taste.

    Cognitive psychology has devoted great efforts to explain the relationship between attention and perception.

    Research has established that when we perceive something, we have to attend to it and then we can save that information as a long-term memory. And when we focus on attending to something, we are able to perceive more details.

    This highlights the interdependent relationship between the two cognitive processes.

    Research in cognitive psychology has found that when we attend to information, various things can be observed, e.g.:

    • During attention, activation of the frontal lobe (anterior part of the brain) can be observed.
    • The body can be in a state of arousal – Selenyck's General Adaptation Syndrome states that the body automatically responds to stressors (arousal), causing people to focus or become hypervigilant. These symptoms are forms of attention.
    • The characteristics of attention can vary depending on the type of attention.

    A characteristic of sustained attention is intense concentration. On the other hand, selective attention is characterised by the ability to fixate on something while ignoring background noise.

    Types of Attention in Psychology

    Although attention is a single cognitive process, psychologists have found that people pay different kinds of attention.

    The different types of attention are the following:

    1. Focused attention refers to focusing on a single stimulus.
    2. Selective attention refers to paying attention to one stimulus, even if there are distractions.
    3. Sustained attention refers to putting attention on a stimulus for an extended period.
    4. Divided attention refers to the attention that is directed to more than one stimulus at a time.
    5. Alternating attention occurs when attention switches back and forth between different stimuli.

    In this way, your attention when revising for an exam (sustained attention) differs from the one you use when watching a rugby game (divided attention).

    Factors Affecting Attention in Psychology

    The type of attention that is available depends on certain factors. The factors affecting attention in psychology are whether there are distractors, such as background noise.

    Our ability to pay attention may vary depending on the context of these distractions and the stimuli we pay attention to. If something is particularly important to you (e.g., if you have a strong memory or a personal interest), you may be more inclined to pay attention to it, and your ability to pay attention may be affected.

    This is also true if you have little or no interest in or personal connection to the topic. In this case, you may have to make more effort to pay attention to a topic (voluntary attention), especially if the stimulus requires active involvement, as in reading.

    Other forms of attention retention may be more involuntary. Your attention may be drawn if something is particularly eye-catching or stressful (e.g., if you are in a dangerous situation).

    Examples of the different forms of attention are effortless, involuntary, focused, spatial, etc.

    Attention, Picture of a school pupil engaging in focussed attention, StudySmarter.Fig. 1. Picture of a school pupil engaging in focussed attention.

    Theories of Attention in Psychology

    The main theories contributing to our knowledge of attention in psychology are auditory selective attention and visual inattention. Auditory attention was researched and theorised by Cherry and Morray in 1959. Visual inattention theory was explored by Simon and Chabris (1999).

    Auditory Selective Attention

    Cherry developed the auditory selective attention theory in 1959. In this study, Cherry (1959) used dichotic shadowing research techniques. Cherry proposed the 'cocktail party effect' to explain how selective attention can change.

    This theory explains an example of auditory attention in the context of a party.

    When someone is in the middle of a conversation with their friends, they pay attention to that conversation. However, if they suddenly hear their name called from the opposite side of the room. The person's attention will focus on the person who called their name and not the conversation.

    Selective auditory attention is the ability to focus on an audio stimulus that interests the person while ignoring others.

    Following these results, Moray (1959) conducted three experiments to confirm Cherry's findings. He attempted to do this using empirical methods. His research also produced evidence of how the cocktail party effect works.

    For example, Moray found that participants heard a 'rejected' message better when they heard affective versus non-affective cues. This finding suggests that people can shift their attention, and this can happen even when they are fixated on a stimulus because they have heard something related to them.

    Visual Inattention

    We seem to pay attention differently when attending to visual stimuli than auditory information. Simon and Chabris (1999) noted this when examining intentional blindness.

    Inattentional blindness refers to not noticing a stimulus that is evidently there. According to this theory, we miss information because individuals are busy attending to other stimuli.

    Visual inattention, like auditory attention, is when a person fails to see something that is apparent.

    In the study, participants were instructed to fixate on a task. The researchers told the participants they would be tested after the video finished to ensure they fixated on the task.

    The study's goal was to see if participants perceived an unexpected event. The unexpected event was a woman holding an umbrella or a woman in a gorilla costume.

    The study found that people were more likely to notice things:

    • When they are focused on an easy task rather than a difficult task.
    • The stimuli they are not paying attention to are clearly visible.
    • When the stimuli have similar physical characteristics to them.

    Like Cherry and Moray's findings, inattention can be overcome when the stimuli they are not attending to are related to the person.

    Attention - Key takeaways

    • The attention definition in psychology is a cognitive process that involves observing or becoming aware of something.
    • Some examples of types of attention in psychology are focused, selective, sustained, divided, and alternating attention.
    • Several factors affecting attention in psychology research have been noted, such as concentration, the number of stimuli present or the presence of distractors.
    • Perception and attention in cognitive psychology suggest that the two cognitive processes have an interdependent relationship.
    • The two main theories of attention in psychology are auditory selective attention (the cocktail party effect) and visual inattention (intentional blindness).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Attention

    What are the three types of attention? 

    Some examples of types of attention in psychology are:

    • Selective attention 
    • Divided attention 
    • Focused attention 

    How is attention defined? 

    The attention definition in psychology is a cognitive process that involves observing or becoming aware of something. 

    What are the characteristics of attention in psychology?

    Characteristics of attention in psychology are: 

    • Concentrating on a stimulus.
    • Being able to ignore distractors. 
    • Activation of the frontal lobe.
    • Arousal 

    How many types of attention are there in psychology? 

    Some examples of types of attention in psychology are focused, selective, sustained, divided, and alternating attention.

    What are the theories of attention in psychology?

    The two main theories of attention in psychology are auditory selective attention (the cocktail party effect) and visual inattention (intentional blindness). 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following groups noticed the unexpected event more?

    Which of the following groups noticed the unexpected event more? 

    Which of the following was noticed more?

    Next

    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Psychology Teachers

    • 8 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner