If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Theories of selective attention

Learn about the three major theories of selective attention. By Carole Yue. . Created by Carole Yue.

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops seed style avatar for user emily
    I'm just wondering if this is why autistic people get overwhelmed in terms of sensory? They just don't have that filter to select the important things in their world.
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user Alex Chen
      One theory of autism spectrum disorder (the Intense World Theory) posits that ASD individuals have a "super-connected" brain. Though they take-in the same sensory stimulus, the stimulus is aberrantly magnified causing an overwhelming perceptual experience. In this sense, one might imagine how it might be difficult to focus on a single stimulus when experiencing multiple stimuli simultaneously.
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user B MCAT
    What's the difference between a dichotic listening task and a shadowing task?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user Kal King
      A dichotic listening task is the act of listening to two different phrases in each ear at the same time (ex. abc in the left ear and 123 in the right ear simultaneously). A shadowing task is where the listener in a dichotic listening task is told to pay attention to the phrase heard in one of the ears and then repeat what they heard (ex. Hearing abc in the left ear and 123 in the right ear simultaneously and then being told to repeat what you hear in your left ear, which was ABC).
      (1 vote)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Benjamin
    I wonder if this is a combination of (more or less) hard-wired attenuation, like paying attention to a squalling infant, and more nuanced learned attenuation, like knowing that a dog's bark will be largely meaningless (at least to most human ears) as opposed to a human voice, which might carry encoded information, like one's name.
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user susa5
    Wouldn't scanning through the attenuated stimuli still be essentially scanning through everything? Maybe I don't understand how exactly this attenuation process is occurring... Can anyone explain attenuation in this context?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Rushan Momin
    which ear is considered shadowed, the unattended ear or the attended?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Niloo Zadeh
    One of the questions in this video section had a theory mentioned by Johnson and Heinz however it was not mentioned within this video...is there a certain reason why certain terms or theories are not included in the videos but are addressed in the section questions?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user 12
    Which theory do you think works the best for selective attention? I think Treisman's attenuative theory sounds best! Please answer or comment down below and feel free to disagree or agree with me with a reason :)
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Aleph.Niemeier
    Concerning Treisman's Attenuation Theory: on what basis does the attenuation take place? What is proposed as the factors deciding which stimuli to weaken or not?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Akua Kyei
    What is the dynamic filter theory?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user behinojoza
    What's the difference between divided attention and selective attention?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Aleph.Niemeier
      I think both shed light on characteristics of attention and are very much related: theories on selective attention work on the basis that attention is observed to be selective and thus are concerned on revealing and explaining the underlying processes of this selectivity. And it is well researched that a division of attention may impeach on its performance which leads to questions like how does this division take place? On what basis? Division is of course only possible when attention can be selective. I guess one way to see it is that "selective" is more concerned with a fundamental attribute of attention and "divided" is more concerned with the phenomenon that attentional peformance changes when it is divided.
      (1 vote)

Video transcript

We already know that attention is a limited resource, and we can't focus on everything in our environment at once. But how do we filter out the unimportant information, and how do we decide when to shift our attention to something new? You've probably experienced that even when you're in a loud crowded room, you're pretty good at attending to the one person who's talking to you. But you still hear bits and pieces of conversations that you're not trying to attend to. What those bits and pieces are and aren't are what interest psychologists who study selective attention, or your ability to focus on something that's relevant to the task at hand while ignoring other information. One way to study selective attention is to observe people while they're doing something called a shadowing task. In this task, you're wearing a pair of headphones, but different information is coming in through each ear piece. So through the left ear, you're hearing one thing, and through the right ear, you're hearing something completely different, maybe a different person's voice, maybe a different language, even. And you're told to repeat everything that's said into one ear, say, your right ear, so you have to pay attention to it and to ignore the other. Based on what we learn about the type of unattended information that we actually do and don't end up comprehending, we can then learn more about how selective attention works. And there are three major theories that try to explain this process. I'm going to talk about these theories in terms of auditory attention, but the same idea applies to other senses as well. The first is Broadbent's early selection theory. Broadbent's idea was that all the information in your environment goes into your sensory register, which briefly registers or stores all the sensory input you get. This includes words, clicks, sirens, any input at all. Then this input gets transferred to the selective filter right away, which identifies what it's supposed to be attending to via basic physical characteristics. So if we're talking about language, the selective filter identifies the voice, pitch, speed, accent, basic things like that, that you don't really need to understand in order to identify. Everything else gets filtered out, and the selected information gets moved along so that perceptual processes can occur. These processes assign meaning to the information. So while the selective filter identifies the pitch of the one you want to pay attention to, the perceptual processes identify it as your friend's voice and assign meaning to the words. Then you can engage in other cognitive processes, such as deciding how to respond. Broadbent's theory was a good start, but there are some problems. If you completely filter out the unattended information before it gets assigned meaning, then you shouldn't be able to identify your own name when it's spoken in an unattended ear. But as you've probably experienced, you immediately perk up when you hear your own name, even when it's across the room and you haven't been paying attention to that conversation before. This is known as the cocktail party effect, and this, among other things, led to researchers coming up with a new theory. A couple folks named Deutsch & Deutsch proposed a late selection theory, which moved Broadbent's selective filter to after the perceptual processes. This means that you actually do register and assign everything meaning, but then your selective filter decides what to pass on to your conscious awareness. That sounds pretty good, but keep in mind that all this has to happen really quickly. Given the limited resource of attention, and the fact that we know our brains are super-efficient, it seems a little wasteful to spend all that effort assigning meaning to stuff you won't ever need. So the answer may be somewhere in between early selection and late selection. So we come to Treisman's attenuation theory of selective attention. Treisman said that instead of a complete filter, we have something called an attenuator. Attenuate just means to weaken. So the attenuator weakens but doesn't eliminate the input from the unattended ear. Then some of it gets through to the perceptual processes. So we still assign meaning to stuff in the unattended ear. It's just not as high priority. At this point, if you realize that the unattended stuff is actually important, then you'll switch over your attention and attenuate what you were previously listening to. Later experiments suggested that the difficulty of the task you're attending to can affect when filtering occurs and how long it takes. The bottom line is there's still some debate about which theory is the absolute best. But these three theories have been pivotal in our understanding of selective attention. It's important to consider because attention is crucial to any other cognitive function we perform. If infants weren't able to attend a human voices and filter out birds chirping or dogs barking, it'd be nearly impossible to learn to speak. And if we didn't have some way to refocus on to unattended information, then we'd never notice if a car was coming straight for us or if someone yelled fire. So now, hopefully, you have a little better understanding of the theories that try to explain this important process.