Attention in psychology

Attention refers to the selection of a specific stimulus from an array of other stimuli.  


  • Alertness: An individual’s readiness to deal with stimuli that appear before her/him. Example: In a marathon, we might have seen the participants on starting line in an alert state waiting for the whistle to blow in order to run.
  • ConcentrationThe act of focusing awareness on certain specific objects while excluding others for the time being. Example: In an examination centre a student concentrates on the teacher instructions and ignore all sort of distraction.
  • Search: An observer looks for some specified subset of objects within a collection. Example: When we go to buy vegetables from the market, we look for the desired vegetable that we need in between other vegetables.  

All these activities require some effort on the part of the people. Attention in this sense refers to “ effort allocation “ Attention has a focus as well as a fringe. When the field of awareness is centered on a particular object or event it is called focus / the focal point of attention. On the other hand, when the object/ event is away from the center of awareness and we are aware of them are said to be at the fringe of attention.



It is concerned mainly with the selection of stimuli/ objects from a large number of stimuli. Our perceptual system has a limited capacity to receive and process information due to which it can deal with few stimuli at a given moment.

Factors affecting:

  • External factors : (related to features of stimuli )siz , intensity, and motion are important determinants of attention. Large, bright, moving, novel & moderately complex stimuli easily catch are attention. Human photos r more likely to attend then photos of inanimate objects ,rhythmic auditory stimuli then verbal narrations. Sudden & intense stimuli have a wonderful capacity to draw attention.
  • Internal factors: (lie within individual) has 2 main categories i.e
    • Motivational factors: Relate to biological of social needs . Example: When we are hungry we notice  even a faint smell of food
    • Cognitive factors: Include factors like interest, attitude, and preparatory set. Objects / events which appear interesting are readily attended by individuals . Similarly we pay quick attention to certain objects/events to which we are favourably disposed. Preparatory set generates a mental state to act in a certain way & readiness of individual to respond to one kind of stimuli and not to other .


  • Filter Theory ( BROADBENT 1956): According to this theory , many stimuli simultaneously enter are receptors creating a kind of “ bottle neck “ situation . i.e. moving through the short term memory system , the info  enter in selective filter , which allows only one stimulus to pass through for higher level of processing & all other stimuli are screened out at that moment of time . Thus we become aware of only that stimuli , which get access through selective filter .
  • Filter – Attenuation Theory ( TRIESMAN 1962): His  theory was the modified theory of filter theory of Broadbent’s theory . This theory states that the stimuli not getting access to the selective filter at a given moment of time are not completely blocked , rather the filter only attenuates (weakens) their strength . Thus some stimuli manage to escape through the selective filter to reach higher levels of processing . Ex: In a restaurant we (punjabi’s) are sitting suddenly someone else speaks in Punjabi but in low voice , but still we get noticed to it because as we are familiar to the stimuli so it occasionally slips through the selective filter . 
  • Multimode Theory (JOHNSTON AND HEINZ 1978 ): This theory believes that attention is a flexible system that allows selection of a stimulus over other at 3 stages.
    • Sensory representation (visual image) are constructed ,
    • Semantic representation (names of object ) are constructed,
    • Sensory & semantic representation enter consciousness. More the processing more is the mental process.
    • When message are selected on the basis of stage 1 (early selection) less mental effort are required, than when the selection is based on stage 3 processing (late selection). 


Sustained attention is primarily concerned with the ability to concentrate, while selective attention focuses mainly on selection of stimuli. Sometimes people have to concentrate on a particular task for many hours (Air traffic controllers, radar readers). They must constantly monitor the signals on screen, signals in such a situation are unpredictable, and they may be fatal if they fail to detect signals. Hence, extreme vigilance is required in those circumstances.

Factors influencing:

  • Sensory Modality: Performance is found to be superior when the stimuli (signals ) are auditory than when they are visual.
  • Stimuli Clarity: Stimuli that last for a long time encourage sustained attention and result in improved performance.
  • Temporal Uncertainty: When stimuli appear at regular intervals of time they are attended better than when they appear at irregular intervals.
  • Spatial Uncertainty: Stimuli that appear at a fixed place are readily attended, whereas those that appear at random locations are difficult to attend.


There are times when the attention can be split between more than one thing at the same time. For example:  Driving a car and talking to a friend /listening to music. Here if we watch them closely, we will notify them they are still allocating more effort to driving than to other activities. As a result, highly practiced activities become almost automatic, requiring less attention than newly learned or lightly practiced activities.  Automatic Processing has 3 main characteristics :

  1. It occurs without intention,
  2. It takes place unconsciously,
  3. It involves very little / no thought process ( we can read words/tie our shoelaces without giving any thought to these activities).

The practical implications of attention are numerous. A number plate is designed that has a maximum number of objects one can see at a glance so that the traffic police can be able to notice it in the case of a traffic violation.  


We have a limited capacity to pay attention to stimuli. A “span of attention / perceptual span” refers to the number of objects one can attend to in a brief exposure (i.e. in a fraction of a second). The span of attention refers to how much information an observer can comprehend from a complex array of stimuli in a single moment. This can be determined by the use of an instrument called a tachistoscope. On the basis of several experiments, Miller has reported that our span of attention varies within the limit of 7 + / – 2  ( Magic Number) It means at a time, people can attend to a set of 5 to 7 no. , which can be extended to 9 or more under exceptional conditions. That’s why cars/ motorbikes are given with a number plate that has only 4 digit numbers with some alphabet so that traffic police can easily note the number in case of violation of the rule.  In many cases, poor academic performance can simply be attributed to poor attention.


Very common behavioural disorder found among children of primary school age. Characterized by impulsivity, excessive motor activity, & an inability to attend. More common in boys than in girls. It may persist through adolescence or adulthood if attention difficulties are not managed properly. A central characteristic of this disorder is the child’s inability to sustain attention in many domains. For example, Such children are highly distractible, they don’t follow instructions, have difficulty in getting along with parents, & are negatively viewed by their peers. They do poorly in schools and show difficulties in reading or learning basic subjects in schools in spite of the fact that there is no deficit in their intelligence.  

There is no evidence for a biological basis for the disorder, but there is some evidence that the disorder has some association with dietary factors, particularly food coloring. Other factors, however, have not been found to explain ADHD reliably as well as social-psychological factors (e.g. family dynamics, pathology in the family). ADHD is currently acknowledged to have a variety of causes and effects.  

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