Attention - Meaning, Types & its Determinants

The concept of Attention is studied in Cognitive Psychology with focus on explaining how we process the environmental information with the help of our sensory receptors. The term attention is used for various perceptual processes, which involves selection and inclusion of certain sensory inputs as a part of our conscious experience. The process of attention involves the very act of listening and concentrating on a specific object, topic or event, for fulfilling the desired goals.

Attention is a process, which does not only involve focusing or concentrating on one thing, but it is equally concerned about ignoring the competing stimuli or information which is available in the environment. Attention allows a person to “tune out” the less relevant information, perception or sensation for that moment and instead focus more or prioritize more on the information which is more relevant. Attention improves our concentration or consciousness on a selective object only, which helps in improving the clarity or focus on the object which is being perceived. Attention cannot be simply regarded to be a cognitive process only, as it is also influenced by emotions, attitude, interest and memory. The process of attention takes place through our cognitive abilities, but the behavioural and emotional factors help in the selection of the relevant information or stimuli from the environment for focusing one’s consciousness around one event or thing for having a clear perception.

Few Crucial Points related to Attention

  • Attention is limited in terms of duration and capacity. It is for this limitation, that multi-tasking hardly bears productive results because of this limited attention capacity.
  • The process of attention involves selectively attending to certain specific variables while filtering out the less relevant or various other variables.
  • Attention is a key component of our cognitive system which starts right from the stage of our birth. For example, a newborn quickly responds to the environment’s stimuli such as loud noise by turning his head towards that direction.

Types of Attention

Classification of Attention by Ross: According to Ross, attention can be classified into Non-Volitional (Involuntary attention) and Volitional (Voluntary attention).

Non-Volitional (Involuntary Attention): This type of attention does not involve any role of will; instead it is aroused either by instincts and hence called enforced attention or is produced by our sentiments and therefore called as spontaneous non-volitional attention. Examples of non-volitional attention could be attention paid to the members of the opposite gender or a mother’s attention on noticing her crying child.

Volitional (Voluntary Attention): Volitional attention exercises the will and demands our conscious effort for arriving at a solution or achieving certain goals. Unlike Non Volitional attention, Volitional attention is less spontaneous or automatic. Examples of volitional attention could be paying attention while solving maths problem or attention focused on while answering examination questions.

Attention can further be categorized on the basis of needs or circumstances which we may be faced with:

Sustained Attention: It is the ability to pay attention to only one task by consciously concentrating on that task only for a long time enough and by avoiding all other forms of distractions or deviations. This kind of attention requires a good deal of focus as well as determination for being able to concentrate on a given task by keeping away all the distractions. Sustained attention examples could be reading a book, memorizing a chapter or following a classroom lecture.

Selective Attention: In this case, the listener chooses to pay attention to only a specific stimulus which is present in the environment while ignoring the other stimuli. This kind of attention does not depend on the stimulus but depends essentially on the attentive capabilities of an observer.

Divided Attention: In case of divided attention, the user pays attention to two or more tasks at the same time and is also sometimes regarded as Multi-tasking which involves juggling between two or more than two tasks at the same time. Its examples could be texting somebody while attending a meeting. Divided attention uses mental focus on a very large scale; hence because of divided attention the user may get exhausted very quickly.

Alternating Attention: Though this attention can be closely related to divided attention, but is different as in case of divided attention we split our attention between two tasks, while in case of alternating attention, the entire attention is shifted from one task to another or is done alternately.

Visual Attention: Visual attention makes use of the sensory organ eyes for paying attention to certain details. Visual attention pays attention to the details or inputs which are received by the eyes only and blurs out all the other stimuli which is present in the environment. Visual attention is put to use in case of advertising and reading.

Auditory Attention: This form of attention pays attention only to the sense of hearing only. Paying attention to an important announcement can be an example of auditory attention. Auditory and visual attention both function in conjunction with each other.

Determinants of Attention

Attention can be influenced by both external and internal factors.

External Factors: These are the factors which are external in nature and are usually governed by the characteristics of the stimuli. These external factors could be related to the nature of the stimuli, the intensity as well as the size of the stimuli, the degree to which contrast, variety or change is present in the stimuli. The extent to which the exposure to a stimulus is repeated will, also determine the strength of the attention. Moreover, a stimulus which is in a state of motion will be able to catch our attention more quickly than a stationery one.

Internal (Subjective) factors: The subjective factors which influence attention are interests, motive, mind set and our attitudes & moods. It is believed that interest is the mother of attention, as we pay attention or focus on those objects about which we have interest. Similarly, our needs or motives equally govern our attention for specific events or objects. Moreover, the mental readiness of a person to respond to certain stimuli or preparedness will also determine the attention level for that person.


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