What is Selective Attention? Definition, Theory and Example!

What is selective attention? In psychology, selective attention is a process whereby the brain selectively filters out large amounts of sensory information in order to focus on just one message. This allows the person to concentrate on the important information while ignoring the irrelevant stuff.

What is selective attention and what does it do?

When your brain is bombarded with information, it cannot cope, so in order to prevent a mental meltdown, we selectively filer out the information we want or need and ignore the rest. For example, you are watching the big game on the TV but your wife is nagging you about all the jobs you are supposed to be doing and the kids are bickering over the Xbox. Selective attention allows you to filter out your wife and kids and concentrate on the match winning goal. Sadly it might not help your relationship.

Although many of us can only concentrate on one thing at a time, with practice, it has been proven that we are able to concentrate on more than one task at a time very successfully. After all, driving a car requires that we change gear, steer, and focus on the road ahead, possibly engaging in conversation at the same time.

What is selective attention and what is the psychological theory behind it?

There are several models of selective attention in cognitive psychology. Donald Broadbent is considered to be one of the most important contributors to the field of information processing. Based on work with air traffic controllers, Broadbent devised experiments known as “dichotic listening tasks” whereby the person would receive simultaneous messages to their right and left ears and were required to repeat what they had heard. Results showed that subjects were unable to detect most of the information, but with practice, results improved dramatically.

The spotlight model of selective attention was developed by David LaBerge, based on work carried out by William James. The theory describes attention as having a margin, fringe and focus. The focus point is where our attention is directed, the fringe is an area of low level attention, and the margin is the cut off point beyond which we pay no attention.

A later model incorporated the ability to increase or decrease the margin, fringe and focus area, although a greater area of attention automatically leads to a slower rate of information processing.

What is selective attention and what is an example?

One interesting example of an experiment that effectively illustrates how selective attention works asks the subject to concentrate on a group of people, half of whom are dressed in white, with the other half dressed in black. The subject is told to count how many times the ball is passed between the team dressed in white. Half way through the game, a black gorilla crosses the field of vision, but because the subject is concentrating on counting the number of ball passes between white players, their brain usually filters out the black gorilla.

Interestingly, people who later watched a similar video, and were therefore expecting to see the gorilla, were more likely to spot the gorilla second time around, but then failed to notice other anomalies. So even we are primed to expect the unexpected, our brain will still selectively filter out information we are not looking for or do not consider important.

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