What Is Selective Attention?

(Last Updated On: January 16, 2022)

People are continuously inundated with endless amounts of information. External stimulation, internal thoughts, emotions, and other forces all compete for our attention. In order to deal with this, people utilize selective attention to tune out things that they don’t need to focus on and concentrate on the things that are important.

In this article, learn more about how selective attention is defined, how it works, and why it is so important.

What Is Selective Attention?

Selective attention involves focusing awareness on certain information while tuning out irrelevant stimuli.  While it can be helpful in focusing on the task at hand, it is also the reason why we may have trouble multitasking.

Definition: Selective attention is defined as the processes that allow people to choose and focus on something in the environment so that it can be processed further, while at the same time suppressing, ignoring, or minimizing information that is distracting or irrelevant.

In this process, people focus awareness on only a narrow part of visual information. It works much like a highlighter or spotlight to make the information you need to attend to more visible and attention-getting, while you are able to tune out other information that is less relevant.

Selectively focusing on certain information makes it easier for people to process and encode that information and has been linked to better memory performance.

It is important to remember that selective attention is not the same as selective memory. Selective memory allows people to remember only the information that they want or need to remember, but selectively attending to information means focusing awareness on specific things while tuning out others.

Types of Selective Attention

The process of selectively paying attention to certain information often involves either visual or auditory information:F

Visual Attention

Visual attention is often described in one of two ways. First, is the spotlight model, which suggests that selective attention for visual information works like a spotlight. You focus on what is lit up by this “spotlight.” While you can still see the information that is outside of the focal point, it is less clear.

The zoom-lens model compares being able to focus on specific visual information to that of a camera lens that allows us to narrow our focus on specific information as needed. 

Auditory Attention

Selective listening is one example of how selective attention allows people to focus on specific information inputs. In selective listening, people listen to only a small portion of a given sound or conversation. For example, you might selectively listen to a podcast while tuning out background chatter and noise.

This phenomenon, known as the “cocktail party effect,” allows people to tune into specific conversations around them even when surrounded by many distracting discussions.

Researchers have found that when two different auditory messages are played in two different ears, people are able to repeat the contents of one message but unable to repeat the other. Changing the information played in the unattended ear, such as playing the conversation in a different language, was often unnoticed by those in the experiments.

Theories of Selective Attention

There are a few different theories that have been proposed to explain how people are able to selectively focus on specific information in their environments.

Broadbent’s Filter Model

One of the best known and most popular is Broadbent’s filter model. According to this theory,  selective attention can be seen as a selective filter that helps people to screen out irrelevant stimuli.

In the early days of research on this topic, Broadbent proposed this model of selective attention in order to explain how people encode information. This theory proposes that selective attention works by blocking all messages except one from entering awareness.

According to Broadbent’s model, selective attention acts as a selective filter. Unwanted information is blocked while important information reaches awareness.

Treisman’s Attenuation Model

Another theory of selective attention is Treisman’s attenuation model. This model states that selective attention works by temporarily reducing the strength or effectiveness of distracting stimuli instead of blocking it completely.

Treisman’s attenuation hypothesis proposes that selective attention affects distractor processing at a later stage of information processing. When selective attention is directed to a particular location, any noise or other irrelevant stimuli in that area will be less noticeable.

Why Selective Attention Is Important

One of the major reasons selective attention is important is because it allows people to focus on what’s happening around them and ignore things that are not relevant or important.  This selective attention makes it easier for people to process information, encode memories, and enhance performance in various cognitive tasks.

Even when selective attention is not directly related to memory, studies have shown that when people are selective with their attention they are more likely to remember the details of the things that they were focusing on.

At its most basic level, selective attention helps us in everyday life by allowing us to focus our awareness on one thing without being distracted by other stimuli or thoughts.

Selective Attention vs. Divided Attention

Selective attention involves focusing awareness on one stimulus while tuning out others, not ignoring them completely. Divided attention, on the other hand, requires paying close attention to two different stimuli at the same time.

Divided attention is best demonstrated when people are doing more than one activity at once. When selective and divided attention is compared, selective listening comes out on top because it results in better memory recall than divided or distracted listening does.

This selective advantage shows how important the ability to selectively attend to information can be for cognitive performance, especially considering that many cognitive tasks involve both selective and divided types of attention.  

Summary

Selective attention allows you to focus awareness on only a narrow part of visual information while tuning out other distractions. This selective type of auditory ability has also been linked with better memory performance. 

This ability manifests itself in many different aspects of life, such as when you focus on a conversation you’re having with someone while filtering out the background sounds and conversations in a busy restaurant.

Many times selective attention involves divided listening which means attending to two different stimuli simultaneously, but selective listening happens when your auditory awareness focuses on just one stimulus without being distracted by others.

Sources:

Cherry EC. Some experiments on the recognition of speech, with one and with two ears. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 1953;25(5):975-979. doi:10.1121/1.1907229.

Schad DJ, Engbert R. The zoom lens of attention: Simulating shuffled versus normal text reading using the SWIFT model. Vis cogn. 2012;20(4-5):391–421. doi:10.1080/13506285.2012.670143

Stevens C, Bavelier D. The role of selective attention on academic foundations: a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2012;2 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S30-S48. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2011.11.001