Selective Attention: Definition And Theories

What is selective attention and why is it such an important concept in psychology?

One of those interesting psychological concepts is the one that we will explain today, through its definition and the theories that have addressed it. We are talking about selective attention .

Selective attention: defining the concept

The selective attention, also called focused attention refers to the ability of an organization to focus your mind on a particular stimulus or task, despite the presence of other environmental stimuli. In other words, it is when a person gives preference to certain stimuli and is able to attend to the relevant stimuli and inhibit the distractors. Its function its function is essential due to the limitation of the attention span.

To exemplify this, you can imagine that you have a shelf full of shoes, and that, since you are going to run with some friends, you need the “running” shoes. When looking for the shoes to wear, this task requires selective attention, so you focus your attention on the ‘sneakers’ to find and use them.

Theories that explain selective attention

There are several theoretical models that claim to explain the functioning of selective attention. The best known are those of Broadbent, Treisman, and Deutsch and Deutsch. All these models are known as filter or bottleneck models because they predict that we cannot attend to all sensory inputs at the same time, so they try to explain why the material that passes through the filter is selected.

But what characterizes each model? We will explain it to you below.

Broadbent Rigid Filter Model

The model Donald Broadbent is one of the best known processing trying to explain specifically attention and selective attention. A work that began with the study of traffic controllers during the war. Broadbent noted that these professionals because they receive many continuous messages that require attention, and they find themselves in a situation where they can only deal with one message at a time, so they have to decide which is the most important. Broadbent designed an experiment with “dichotic listening” to investigate the processes involved in changing the focus of attention.

Broadbent thinks that the information of all the stimuli that are presented at a given moment enters the “sensory buffer” (buffer center), also called the short-term store . One of the inputs is selected for its physical characteristics to pass the filter. Since we have a limited capacity to process information, the filter is designed to prevent the information processing system from becoming saturated.

Sensory inputs that are not selected remain briefly in the sensory buffer, and if not they disappear quickly. Broadbent assumed that the filter rejected unserved messages in the initial stages of processing.

His investigations and the task of dichotic listening

In his research, he wanted to know how individuals were able to focus attention selectively, and for this he deliberately overloaded them with stimuli. Subjects received too much information, too much to process at the same moment.

One of the ways Broadbent accomplished this was by sending simultaneous and different messages (a three-digit number) to the right and left ears. The participants were asked to repeat them while listening to both messages. What is known as a “dichotic listening task”.

The scientist was interested in how the digits would be repeated. Would they respond in the order they heard it? Broadbent observed that the digits of a channel always repeated together. For example, if the left ear listened 673 and the left 987, the subjects responded 673 987, or 987 673. A response of type 867637 was never obtained, in which there would be alternation between channels.

The results of Broadbent’s research

The results of his research led him to affirm that we can only pay attention to one channel at a time (in dichotic listening, each ear is a channel, so the other is lost). The information that is lost will depend on the characteristics of the stimulus and the needs of the organism. Furthermore, as already mentioned, the filter, which selects a channel for attention, does this taking into account the physical characteristics: for example, the ear through which the information entered, the type of voice. Therefore, the meaning of what is said is not taken into account at any time in the filter. All semantic processing, that is, understanding what the message says, takes place after the filter.

This model has received a lot of criticism, for example, it does not define precisely the nature and functions of the processing system, it does not provide enough information regarding how information can be transferred from one warehouse to another, and it considers working memory as a passive warehouse.

The Treisman Attenuated Filter Model

Selective attention requires that stimuli be filtered in order to direct attention. As explained above, Broadbent suggested that the material selected for attention (i.e., filtering) is done before semantic analysis. Well, the Treisman model maintains this filter idea, but with the difference that instead of eliminating the material, it attenuates it. Attenuation is like turning the volume down, so if you have four stimuli in a room (a crying baby, the television, a person on the phone, and the radio) you can lower the volume by three to focus on the remaining stimulus.

Unattended material appears to have been lost, but if an unattended channel includes your name, for example, you may hear it because the material is there. In other words, the relevant message goes through the filter, but the irrelevant ones are grayed out so as not to overload the central processing mechanism. Irrelevant messages receive some type of analysis, that is why some outstanding feature is detected and our attention is diverted to these channels.

The Deustch and Deustch late filter model

The Deustch and Deustch model affirms that all stimuli are analyzed and reach a meaning in order to select the input that will pass to total consciousness. The selection of this input occurs depending on how important the stimulus is at that moment.

Unlike the Broadbent and Treisman models, the stimuli are not filtered at the beginning of the cognitive process, but rather the filter would be present later in said process, and its main function would be to select the information that passes into active memory.

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