The concept of attention is one of the oldest and most commonly used in the communication literature. The concept is fraught with connotations that typically have little to do with the use of attention in a particular study because of its origins in vernacular language and the difficulty in separating everyday meaning from scientific meaning. To make matters more complicated, as Michell (1990) has noted, different operations often define different concepts, suggesting hundreds of attention concepts in the communication literature alone.
Attention might be described as different concepts within particular levels of communication, and may best be understood through its oldest definitions. In its original use, the concept meant to take heed or to be ready to accompany someone. Over time, usage evolved into the military version of attention, which refers to a readiness for commands. These usages, and the connotations that have developed since, have been used to suggest that attention is a precursor to action of some sort. That is, in research at a macro-level, a society’s attention may refer to the issues that are the objects of governmental policy.
Organizational attention may similarly refer to those objects or actors in the environment that the organization focuses on. At the individual level, we perhaps see the most varied uses of the term, but all incorporating some sense of a precursor to memory or learning processes. Attention may refer to eye contact between two persons involved in a conversation, the selection of news articles for reading, the inability to stay “on task” or complete tasks (as in attention deficit disorder), or the tendency to focus one’s eyes on a television screen. At a more micro-level, individual attention refers to some of the activities involved in information processing. Although the concept of attention makes the most sense in terms of one actor (e.g., an individual, an organization, or a social system), some recent work includes the concept of joint attention, which focuses on the overlap in attention between two individuals, such as a child and parent (Kaplan & Hafner 2006). Here the focus is on the term as it has been used in the communication literature derived from concepts of psychology.
Models And Conceptualizations Of Attentions
At their root, models of attention describe how and what information can be processed. At any point in time, there are many different stimuli impinging on our senses (both external and internal). Attention is the process of filtering those stimuli to allow our concentration on only a few of them. Some signals (such as the noise we generate when breathing) are handled on a nonconscious level most of the time. However, this still leaves numerous external stimuli that we must deal with. In a noisy crowd, we can concentrate on one conversation and make sense of most of it to the exclusion of other conversations going on around us (the “cocktail party phenomenon”), yet we will react if, in one of the conversations near us, someone mentions our name. We may shift our attention to that other conversation to try to understand what was being said about us. If we do so, we are likely to have missed a portion of the conversation we were engaged in before our name was mentioned. Such issues led early attention researchers to a principle called the “law of prior entry,” which suggested that only a single signal can be processed at a given time (Reynolds & Flagg 1977). These examples illustrate several ideas related to the concept of attention: first, that attention is a filtering mechanism – all attention is selective, and second, that our attentional processes have constraints in the form of a limited processing capacity for stimuli that are to be processed concurrently. Attention is thus the process of allocating our processing capacity among different incoming stimuli (both internal and external).
Broadbent’s Filter Theory
Although attention has always been a part of the field of psychology (e.g., James 1890), it was not until the decline of strict behaviorist models that serious study was given to developing a model of how attention works. Broadbent (1958) demonstrated that physical dimensions of stimuli (e.g., color, loudness, etc.) are most useful in enabling discrimination and selection for processing. Further, he showed that individuals have some control over the selection of content within a particular situation. Broadbent built on the state of research at the time to develop the “filter theory” to answer the question as to how the available processing capacity is allocated among incoming signals. He suggested a “sensory receptor” to receive incoming stimuli, followed by three major components of attention: a selective filter, a limited capacity channel, and a detection device.
In this model, the sensory register acts as a kind of buffer, holding all incoming stimuli for quick analysis of physical features that might indicate importance for further processing. After this, the “marked” signals are passed to the selective filter, which screens out everything that does not require further processing. Broadbent suggested that the selective filter could be “fine tuned” to allow for, or screen out, certain characteristics identified in the pre-attentive processing. From the selective filter, the stimulus moves into the limited capacity channel to receive further processing. Under Broadbent’s model, which was widely adopted in the 1950s and early 1960s, selection among stimuli is based entirely on the physical properties of the sensory information – no meaning is extracted.
Alterations To Filter Theory
It has become clear that some of the components of Broadbent’s model are robust, such as the sensory store, which survives in models today with many of the same characteristics as identified by Broadbent, but typically separated as iconic and echoic store. However, the model of much of the process after sensory reception has been altered. By the 1960s, it had become clear that certain aspects of meaning must be extracted earlier in the attention process. Treisman (1969; Treisman & Gelade 1980) developed a modification (attenuation theory) that suggested that, rather than a simple all-or-nothing switch, the selective filter served to attenuate those signals that are least relevant to ongoing concerns. By 1967, Neisser’s “analysis by synthesis” model appeared. In this model, patterns of expectations are developed and these are used in the pre-attentive filtering as a warning about what types of signals are likely to be expected; when those signals arrive in the preattentive phase they are more likely to be passed on for further filtering.
In the 1970s, researchers began to further refine the idea of limited capacity. Whereas earlier formulations focused on the idea of one message, these researchers noted that, if cognitive demands are low, it is often possible to process two messages concurrently (such as when we read a book and watch TV at the same time). In the revised view, rather than a single channel of information being processed, the idea was that, although limited, various tasks took only a certain amount of capacity, so that one could perform multiple tasks as long as their combined processing needs did not exceed the capacity available. Additional work focused on the relationship between arousal and attention. Such work further complicated our models because it was found that our ability to attend to a task rises with arousal up to a particular point, and then decreases, in an inverted U-shape.
Most recently, spreading activation models have been incorporated into models of attention to help explain why certain message components may be processed more efficiently than others. Much of the current work focuses on the use of positron emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brain during information-processing tasks, to obtain a better understanding of the relationship between attention and other neural processes. Noguchi and his colleagues (2007), for example, recently examined the speed of perceptual neural activity and found that attention led to an increase in both neural intensity and speed, suggesting that attentional processes, which are somewhat under our control, are able to modulate information-processing activity.
Applications In Communication Research
As mentioned at the outset, since its beginnings, the field of communication has employed the concept of attention in a number of ways. As the field of psychology has progressed from global uses of the term to more specific and micro-level conceptualizations, the field of communication has followed, with a respectable lag. Early work on public speaking and the audience for public speakers examined audience members’ attention; work in political communication and media effects focused on attention as a precondition for learning about what was stressed in the news or in politicians’ stands on issues. These more global meanings of attention form a core of research on attention as an observed behavior that, it is likely, provides a reasonable estimate of attention processes that are occurring within individuals.
The more recent developments in psychology that focus on the cognitive process of attention offer more exact descriptions of what occurs within our brains, and so offer a different look at communication processes from what was obtainable, or even conceivable, earlier. Although equipment for measuring attentional processes by fMRI or PET scanning remains out of reach of most communication researchers, the research that has been done in that area has had an influence on the thinking and conceptualization of communication problems.
Most of the immediate application has been in the area of mass communication processes and learning, affect, or persuasion. Lang and her colleagues, for example, have used the limited capacity aspect of attention to develop a model of media message processing in a variety of contexts. This body of work is focused on the attempt to understand how media content structures interact with attention processes in learning and emotional responses. While Lang and her colleagues often use psychophysiological devices to measure reactions under predictions of certain attention constraints or conditions, others have resorted to paper-and-pencil measures, questionnaires, or other, more traditional techniques for measuring while employing the tenets of current models of attention. Miller and Leshner (2007), for example, used a signal detection analysis to investigate the impact of “disgusting” news stories on processing resources and resultant memory. Wirth et al. (2007) have used current models of attention to investigate the concept of presence in a multimedia environment.
Work on attention and spreading activation has been instrumental in developing models of persuasion as used by both mass communication and interpersonal communication scholars (Petty & Cacioppo 1986; Chaiken et al. 1989). Scholars in other areas of interpersonal communication have been slower to incorporate contemporary attention models into their research, perhaps because the research topic is less likely to be concerned with micro-processes than is mass communication research, which often deals with learning and other media effects. Of the few examples of such application, most study nonverbal communication processes. Phillips et al. (2007), for example, have used current models of attention and working memory to investigate the use of social cues in nonverbal behavior, while Lieberman et al. (1988) used attention models and what was known about attention processes to examine nonverbal decoding ability.
Because it is crucial to our understanding of learning and memory, the concept of attention continues to hold center stage at a number of levels of analysis within communication research. As researchers in cognitive psychology and neuroscience learn more about the micro-level components of attention processes, researchers in communication will continue to take that knowledge and apply it to central problems in the discipline. As increased skills develop in multilevel modeling and advanced statistical analysis, we are likely to see a real contribution of communication in bridging between micro and larger levels, potentially developing links between individual information processing and group processes.
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