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Attention

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Attention

Attention has an essential role in human functioning. For example, without attention, we would not form memories, do well in school, work or finish tasks. According to some psychologists, we have a limited capacity to attend to things. We mean by this that, when processing information or addressing various stimuli, there is a set amount of time we can be consciously aware of and attend to it before our minds naturally begin to drift and focus on other topics.

Attention definition in psychology

When paying attention to one thing, we will neglect other stimuli instead of focusing on it. Perception and attention in cognitive psychology are of great importance. Let us explore the definition of attention, different types of it as well as existing theories of attention in psychology.

Attention is a cognitive process involving people being able to focus or concentrate on one thing while ignoring other stimuli.

Attention means our cognitive processes/resources are focused on a certain stimulus in the environment, and we are actively ready to respond to it. Psychology research attempts to identify and explain brain parts and processes that are responsible for attention, in addition to understanding what factors affect attention.

Attention definition psychology StudySmarterAttention, Flaticon

Types of attention in psychology

Psychologists have found people pay different kinds of attention. The different types of attention are:

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

The type of attention that is available depends on certain factors. The factors affecting attention in psychology are whether there are distraction factors such as background noise. Depending on the context of these distractions and the stimuli we pay attention to, our ability to pay attention may vary. If something is particularly important to you (e.g., if you have a strong memory of it or a personal interest in it), you may be more inclined to pay attention to it, and your ability to pay attention may be affected.

Attention factors affecting attention in psychology StudySmarterFactors affecting attention in psychology, Flaticon

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. Thus, if something is particularly eye-catching or stressful (e.g., if you are in a dangerous situation), your attention may be drawn there. So we see that there are different forms of attention (effortless, involuntary, focused, spatial, etc.).

Characteristics of attention in psychology

The characteristics of attention, according to psychological research, are:

  • Activation of the frontal lobe (anterior part of the brain).
  • 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 the 'background noise’.

What are the theories of attention in psychology?

The main theories contributing to our knowledge of attention in psychology are auditory 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 attention

Cherry (1959) studied selective attention using 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 be focused on the person who called their name and not on the conversation.

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

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

Visual inattention

Simon and Chabris (1999) investigated this by examining inattentional blindness. The inattentional blindness definition is not noticing a stimulus that is evidently there. The reason for this is that the person is concentrating on something else.

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

In the study, participants were made to fixate on a task. To ensure they focused only on the intended stimuli, participants were told to be tested after the video. 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.

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

Attention - Key takeaways

  • Attention is a cognitive process in which people are able to focus or concentrate on one thing while ignoring other stimuli.
  • There are different types of attention:
    • Focused, selective, sustained, divided, and alternating attention.
  • The type of attention depends on several factors, such as whether there are distractions, and the number of stimuli to focus on.
  • One theory of attention is auditory attention: the ability to focus on an audio stimulus that is of interest to the person while ignoring others.
    • Cherry (1959) and Moray (1959) explored this theory.
  • Another theory of attention is visual attention. This is when someone does not see something that is physically present.
    • Simon and Chabris (1999) researched this theory.

Frequently Asked Questions about Attention

Attention is a cognitive process involving people being able to focus or concentrate on one thing while ignoring other stimuli. Our cognitive processes/resources are focused on a certain stimulus in the environment, and we are actively ready to respond to it.

Examples of types of attention are:

  • Selective attention 
  • Divided attention 
  • Focused attention 

Characteristics of attention in psychology are: 

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

There are five main types of attention in psychology. 

The theories of attention in psychology are:

  • Auditory attention 
  • Visual inattention

Final Attention Quiz

Question

Who carried out research on inattentional blindness? 

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Answer

Simon and Chabris (1999).

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Question

Which researcher’s theory did Simon and Chabris (1999) attempt to build on?

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Answer

Moray’s (1959) research on auditory information.

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What is inattentional blindness?

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Answer

Inattentional blindness is not noticing a stimulus that is evidently there due to concentrating on something else.

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Question

How does change blindness and inattentional blindness differ?

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Answer

Change blindness is a similar concept to inattentional blindness, except that people cannot perceive changes in stimuli. Whereas, intentional blindness is when someone fails to notice a stimulus because they are not paying attention.

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Question

What experimental design did Simon and Chabris (1999) use?

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Answer

Simon and Chabris (1999) did a lab experiment that used an independent measures design. 

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Question

What were the two levels of the independent variable that were participants tested in?

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Answer

The two levels of the IV participants were tested on are:

  1. White easy/white hard/black easy/black hard.
  2. Opaque umbrella woman/transparent umbrella woman/opaque gorilla/ transparent gorilla.

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Question

What was the dependent variable measured in Simon and Chabris (1999) research?

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Answer

The dependent variable was the number of participants (%) who noticed the unexpected event (the ‘umbrella woman’/gorilla).

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Question

Which of the following groups noticed the unexpected event more?

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Answer

Opaque.

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Which of the following groups noticed the unexpected event more? 

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Answer

Easy condition.

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Which of the following was noticed more?

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Answer

Umbrella-women.

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Question

How many participants were recruited in the study? 

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Answer

The study recruited 228 participants. However, some participants were excluded from the data. The analysis was done on 192 participants data. 

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What was the percentage of participants who noticed the unexpected event?

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Answer

The number of participants who noticed the unexpected event was 54%.

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Question

What was the percentage of participants who did not notice the unexpected event?

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Answer

The number of participants who did not notice the unexpected event was 46%.

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Question

Which of these findings did not support the traditional view of visual search tasks? 

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Answer

White Gorilla condition.

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Question

What are the strengths of Simon and Chabris (1999) research? 

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Answer

The strengths of the research are:

  • Real-life application.
  • High internal reliability.
  • Generalisable.
  • High internal validity.

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What are the weaknesses of Simon and Chabris (1999) research? 

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Answer

The weaknesses of the research are:

  • Low ecological validity.
  • Cause-and-effect cannot be established.

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Question

What is selective auditory attention?

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Answer

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

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Question

Who proposed the cocktail party effect?

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Answer

Cherry (1953).

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What did both Cherry and Moray find?

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Answer

Both researchers found people could recall more information from the attended message than the ‘rejected’ message. 

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What do similar results from the two researchers infer?

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Answer

Similar findings from two studies infer the results are reliable. 

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Question

Which of Moray’s (1959) experiments found similar results to Cherry?

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Answer

Experiment 1.

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Question

Which of Moray’s (1959) experiments provide supporting explanations of the cocktail party effect? 

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Answer

Experiment 1.

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Question

Is the following statement true or false: ‘Cherry and Moray’s (1959) Experiment 1 used a similar research design’? 

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Answer

True.

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Which of Moray's research used a repeated-measures design?

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Answer

Experiment 1.

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Question

How do affective cues affect following instructions in ‘rejected’ messages?

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Answer

Participants are more likely to follow instructions when affective cues versus non-affective cues are included

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What are the strengths of Moray’s research?

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Answer

The strengths of the research are:

  • Results are reliable as Moray and Cherry found similar results.
  • High internal validity.

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What are the weaknesses of Moray’s research?

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Answer

The weaknesses of the research are:

  • Low ecological validity. 
  • Findings are non-generalisable due to the small sample.

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Question

In Moray’s second experiment, which condition did participants follow more instructions of the ‘rejected’ message? 

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Answer

Affective cues.

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What did Moray find in the third experiment?

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Answer

Non-significant differences between mean scores of both groups tested.

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Question

In which condition of experiment one (Moray, 1959), did participants recognise more words?

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Answer

Shadowed message.

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What is shadowing? 

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Answer

Shadowing is when a participant listens to a continuous message while repeating it aloud.

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What is the purpose of the shadowing research technique? 

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Answer

The shadowing method aims to ensure that people attend to the intended message and ‘reject’ the other audio.

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Question

Is attention an active process? 

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Answer

Yes

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Question

Which theory did Cherry (1959) research? 

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Answer

Auditory attention 

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Question

Which theory did Moray (1959) research? 


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Answer

Visual inattention 

Show question

Question

Which theory did Simon and Chabris (1999) research? 

Show answer

Answer

Visual inattention 

Show question

Question

What are the theories of attention in psychology? 

Show answer

Answer

The theories of attention in psychology are:

  • Auditory attention 
  • Visual inattention 

Show question

Question

What are the characteristics of attention?

Show answer

Answer

The characteristics of attention according to psychology research is:

  • Activation of the frontal lobe (anterior part of the brain).
  • 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.

Show question

Question

Can the characteristics of attention vary based on the type of attentional process the person is using? 

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Answer

Yes 

Show question

Question

What type of attention is defined by focusing on a single stimulus? 

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Answer

Focused 

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Question

What type of attention would be used when students are using different books to revise? 

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Answer

Alternating 

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Question

What type of attention is defined by paying attention to a stimulus for a long time?

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Answer

Sustained 

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