Selective attention refers to the differential processing of multiple sources of information that are available at the same time (Johnston & Dark 1986). These information sources are generally in the external environment, though they need not be. For example, internal information sources, like memory, may also hold attention. Further, selective attention refers not simply to the orientation toward one message or stimulus rather than another, but also to the focus on parts of a message rather than other parts (often referred to as selective processing).
Although attention may certainly be drawn to an object or message via its sensory stimulating features (e.g., its appearance), most research on selective attention focuses on the characteristics of individuals that might cause them to direct their attention to one stimulus rather than another. It is also of note that attention can be either automatic or controlled. That is, sometimes one’s attention is drawn to stimuli by forces outside conscious awareness. Other times, people may actively choose what to attend to and what to avoid. Ultimately, selective attention has been an important focus for cognitive psychologists because it is generally accepted that what people attend to has implications for how they orient to their environment, their conscious life experiences, and the functional outcomes of those events and interactions.
Discussion of selective attention can be traced to the work of William James (1950), who astutely observed that attention is influenced by what already exists in the mind. Indeed, decades of psychological research in this area suggest that selective attention is largely motivated by the priming, or activation, of certain mental constructs, including an object’s modality, semantic cues, or mental schema (Johnston & Dark 1986). So, for example, if the visual modality is primed, attention may be biased toward information presented through that modality. Similarly, if a particular schema is activated (e.g., birthday party), selective attention processes might lead people to pay greater attention to schema-consistent information (e.g., party hats, presents, candles). This attention, in turn, affects memory for and judgments of those features.
The extensive research on selective attention since the 1950s has been largely motivated by a particularly interesting conundrum known as “the cocktail party problem.” That is, how is it that we can attend to one conversation, yet notice when our name is mentioned in a different conversation that we were not consciously aware was taking place? Indeed, the larger question is how people’s attention can be both focused and divided such that important information from an unattended source may still be gathered. The research in this area, thus, has been geared toward understanding the nature of attention itself.
Theoretically, multiple explanations have been offered to explain selective attention, focusing on whether selectivity occurs earlier or later during information processing. “Early selection” theories, like Broadbent’s filter theory, argue that selectivity occurs early such that physical properties (e.g., sound, location) are noticed for all incoming stimuli, but given people’s limited perceptual capacities, a selective filter limits deeper information processing of most stimuli. “Later selection” theories, however, argue that deeper automatic processing is actually more common than initially thought. Such theories assert that most stimuli are deeply processed but only some make it into memory and affect deliberate choice.
Given that evidence from auditory and visual information studies seems to support elements of both perspectives, a compromise position has gained popularity. This position suggests that deeper processing of unattended stimuli is still more the exception than the rule, but that such stimuli do receive attenuated processing such that a person could pick up on relevant information if need be on the basis of activated schemas (see Driver 2001). More recent work elaborates on this view, arguing that if limits on perceptual capacity are not reached with the target information, then other “distractor information” may be processed. However, if the target information demands more capacity, distractor information is less likely to be automatically processed. Ultimately, it appears that attention is like an “adjustable beam spotlight” in which attention is sharpest on what is in the center, but sometimes, if capacity allows, is drawn to objects outside the spotlight, particularly those relevant to an activated schema (see Johnston & Dark 1986).
Applications In Research
The most current psychological investigations of selective attention have begun to focus heavily on issues related to neuroscience. Specifically, rather than relying on self-report and eye-tracking measures of attention, these studies examine neurotransmitters and brain structure activation to gain insight into the physiological processes underlying selective attention, awareness, and ultimately memory. This research offers increasing insight into why people of various ages and psychological or pathological conditions attend as they do, and there is little doubt this reflects the methodological future of selective attention research.
From a communication standpoint, research on selective attention is likely to continue to focus on the qualities of individuals and their cognitive makeup that direct attention to some (or parts of some) messages rather than others. An examination of the literature actually reveals little direct discussion of selective attention per se, but rather a focus on the notion of selective exposure. Selective exposure refers to audience bias in the selection of information sources, generally in favor of those consistent with existing attitudes or opinions. Although it could be argued that selective exposure processes are more active and controlled than those of selective attention, the conceptual overlap between the two is strong. It should be noted, however, that there is a much clearer distinction between both of these concepts and that of selective perception, which involves differing interpretations of the same information based on previously held attitudes. In other words, selective attention/exposure assumes bias in what is seen or heard, whereas selective perception refers to bias in how attended information is interpreted
The idea that people’s beliefs influence their attention or exposure to information appears early in the communication literature (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944), and has been applied to both interpersonal and media contexts. In interpersonal contexts, selective attention has been proposed as an explanation for relational judgments and conflict. For example, when people aim to make judgments about another’s attractiveness or personality, they are more likely to accurately describe the person along that dimension (Perry 1976). Relatedly, if two people have different issues in mind during a conversation (e.g., related past arguments, work- or healthrelated stress), they are likely to attend to different aspects of the communication, which ultimately could impact their interpretation of the conversation (Watzlawick et al. 1967).
There has also been extensive research on selective exposure in the realms of media and influence (see Bryant & Davies 2006). Much of this research suggests that elements of a person’s belief system or psychological makeup impact the messages he or she chooses to read or watch. For example, research on news and political information suggests people choose to expose themselves to information that is consistent with their prior political beliefs. In the persuasion literature, much evidence suggests that people are more likely to attend to information they perceive as personally relevant. From a broader media perspective, people often select their media content on the basis of whether they expect it will meet their social or psychological needs, including needs for information, social connection, or diversion.
In considering the psychological factors that influence selective attention or exposure, it is clear that emotional, as well as cognitive, components have influence. Indeed, Festinger’s (1957) highly influential dissonance theory makes this evident. According to dissonance theory, the motivation to maintain consistency in one’s beliefs motivates selective exposure processes such that information expected to be inconsistent with currently held beliefs will be avoided. This presumption has been supported by a recent meta-analysis of 16 research studies that linked dissonance with selective information exposure (D’Alessio & Allen 2002). Although this appears to be a cognition-based effect, the motivation for the information attention is the “psychological discomfort,” or negative affective feeling, associated with inconsistency. Further, there is evidence that those in particular emotional states are more motivated to attend to information related to that state (Nabi 2003). To the extent to which people would like to change or maintain their moods, evidence from the media literature suggests that people expose themselves to media messages that they expect will help them to manage their moods in ways they most prefer (Zillmann 2000).
Although the focus of selective exposure research may seem to emphasize the cognitive and emotional makeup and abilities of the individual, there is also evidence that message or situational features may draw attention apart from, or sometimes in conjunction with, the individual’s needs. The psychological literature in particular has focused on spatial orientation of information presentation, suggesting that selective attention appears to be more strongly influenced by visual, rather than semantic, cues. Further, color and orientation are the visual cues most easily processed. Indeed, the literature on information vividness suggests that information that is graphic, concrete, and emotional is more likely to be attended to and to affect judgments, though evidence for the latter effect has been elusive.
There is also evidence that certain features of individuals might garner attention. For example, evidence supports the idea that people – both men and women – selectively attend to women they find attractive although only women selectively attend to men they find attractive (Maner et al. 2003). In the influence literature, the impact of source attractiveness, in addition to source similarity, likeability, and credibility, suggests that people may be more likely to attend to, and be influenced by, messages presented by those with whom they share similar features (gender, age, race), or whom they like or trust, than to those same messages presented by sources low on those characteristics, assuming low message scrutiny.
Finally, from the communication literature, Lang’s (2000) limited capacity model focuses on elements of message construction – both structure (e.g., edits, screen size) and content (e.g., sex, violence) – and how they interact with information-processing systems to affect what information is attended to and ultimately remembered and what information is not. Relatedly, research on message sensation value suggests that messages with certain features (e.g., sound saturation, camera cuts and angles, graphic images) are more likely to attract the attention of, and thus influence, high sensation seekers than messages without these features (Morgan et al. 2003).
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