Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford

Selective Attention

  • Lovina R. BaterEmail author
  • Sara S. Jordan
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1904-1



Selective attention is defined as the cognitive process of attending to one or fewer sensory stimuli (i.e., external and internal) while ignoring or suppressing all other irrelevant sensory inputs (McLeod 2018; Murphy et al. 2016). Researchers have proposed and examined several different theories for the process of selective attention such as bottleneck theories [i.e., Broadbent’s Filter Theory (1958), Deutsch and Deutsch’s Late Selection Theory (1963), and Treisman’s Attenuation Theory (1964)] that focus on flow and filtering of information and, more recently, load theories [i.e., Lavie’s Perceptual Load Theory (1994), Tsal and Benoni’s Dilution Theory (2010), and Hybrid Theory (2013)] that address perceptual and cognitive resources expended. While load theories are the primary focus within the cognitive psychology literature, it is often difficult to obtain measures that adequately operationalize these constructs, calling into question the veracity of the theories (Murphy et al. 2016). Nevertheless, selective attention is imperative to one’s daily functioning by selectively attending to certain stimuli and not others, avoiding overloading the informational processing system (McLeod 2018; Murphy et al. 2016). Selective attention is also seen as associated features with certain diagnoses. For example, children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who often display executive functioning difficulties, also show signs of selective attention deficits (Brodeur and Pond 2001). In more of an application context, the voluntary act of selectively attending to behavior or information given is also a primary technique used within child therapy, particularly in reference to behavior management techniques (Girard et al. 2018).


Selective attention is defined as the cognitive process of attending to a small number of sensory stimuli (i.e., external and internal) while ignoring or suppressing all other irrelevant sensory inputs (McLeod 2018; Murphy et al. 2016). The process of concentrating on important information while ignoring distracting, unimportant stimuli is critical to almost all cognitive processes. The amount of available attentional resources is limited, and selective attention circumvents overwhelming one’s informational-processing system. Selective attention has been a primary topic of study in the field of cognitive psychology and is commonly seen in the child psychology literature as well (Brodeur and Pond 2001; Girard et al. 2018). However, to fully understand the concept of selective attention, it is first important to understand the various theories.

Early Theories of Selective Attention

Many of the early theories of attention include what is commonly referred to as the “bottleneck” model of informational processing (McLeod 2018; Murphy et al. 2016). When imagining a standard bottle placed horizontally, a large amount of fluid is allowed inside, but, as the opening becomes narrower, smaller amounts of fluid are allowed to pass through the neck, depending on the rate of flow. This is similar to many of the early theories of selective attention. Donald Broadbent’s Filter Theory of Attention (1958) is a prime example of an early selection “bottleneck” model of informational processing.

According to Broadbent (1958), all stimuli enter the sensory buffer (the large part of the bottleneck) which assesses the physical characteristics of the stimuli like frequency and location the sound is coming from and only allows few stimuli to enter the selective filter. The unselected stimuli will not be understood, and will decay in the sensory buffer. The selective filter is where he theorized the meaning of the stimuli is created, in the perceptual/semantic processor, and the way in which we decide how to respond is determined. An important task used by Broadbent to further examine how selection attention works was the dichotic listening task. The task procedure involves simultaneously sending messages (i.e., three-digit number) to both the left and right ear and having participants repeat both messages. While Broadbent found that participants that listened ear-by-ear did significantly better than those repeating the order of which the messages were received, there are many criticisms about his theory. The main argument against his theory involves debate about the location where stimuli gain meaning within the selective attention process. The cocktail party effect is the primary source of debate against Broadbent’s theory, suggesting that the recognition of one’s name being stated at a crowded cocktail party implies that the analysis of stimuli occurs before it gets filtered out (McLeod 2018).

Deutsch and Deutsch (1963), attempting to address the limitations to Broadbent’s theory, developed the late selection theory. This theory was consistent with Broadbent’s with the exception of switching the order of the perceptual processes and the selective filter. They proposed that all stimuli are analyzed for meaning, but not all stimuli are allowed to pass the filter. They agreed that the physical characteristics are the reason stimuli are selected, along with the relevance of the stimuli’s meaning.

In 1964, 1 year later, Anne Treisman proposed her theory of selective attention: the attenuation theory (Treisman 1964). She suggested that the stimuli are not filtered but are attenuated or enter into the sensory register at a lower intensity and are therefore given meaning early on. Her theory, while not directly observable, does explain the limitation of Broadbent’s regarding the cocktail party effect (McLeod 2018). Treisman also used the dichotic listening task but sent complete words into both ears instead of a sequence of numbers. Her results showed that people would often combine the messages heard in both ears suggesting that the unattended message is given meaning regardless of whether it is retained.

Recent Theories and Empirical Findings

While the late versus early filtering of the bottleneck model were the primary debates of the mid-1900s, more recent research has suggested a modified hypothesis: Perceptual Load Theory (Lavie and Tsal 1994; Murphy et al. 2016). This theory disregarded the idea of the filter paradigm and, instead, focused on the processing demands of the task at hand. While there is mixed evidence for and criticisms of this theory, the perceptual load theory has encompassed most of the selective attention research for the past 20 years and has accompanying neural evidence supporting the principles of the theory (e.g., Murphy et al. 2016). This theory suggests that the amount of perceptual and cognitive load regulates how effectively stimuli are selectively attended to, determining whether the response will mimic the early versus late selection process. Perceptual load refers to the external properties of the stimulus, similar to Broadbent’s description of the stimuli’s physical characteristics (Lavie and Tsal 1994; Murphy et al. 2016). The theory and empirical evidence suggest that irrelevant and distracting stimuli are more difficult to disregard when a person’s perceptual load is low. However, research shows that not all follow this pattern, responding based on individual differences, leaving another mechanism of selective attention: cognitive load. Cognitive load is referred to as the internal resources or executive functioning abilities that are required and available for the selective attention task at hand. Research suggests that when cognitive load is high, individuals are more likely to become distracted by irrelevant stimuli and have increased difficulties with selective attention.

As mentioned, the perceptual load theory of selective attention is not without criticism (Murphy et al. 2016). The definition of perceptual load is difficult to operationalize, and, therefore, the accuracy of experimental research results examining this theory are difficult to interpret. The impact that the salience of the distracting stimulus (i.e., distractor) has on the process and the spatial proximity of the stimuli to one another are further issues that make clarification of the theory difficult. However, a primary argument against the theory is the dilution theory, proposed by Tsal and Benoni (2010). It is argued that support for the perceptual load theory within the literature is due to the dilution of the irrelevant stimuli’s interference because of neutral stimuli within conditions. While there are debates about Lavie and Tsal’s theories, other researchers have recently proposed a hybrid theory that would account for both perceptual load and dilution (Murphy et al. 2016; Scalf et al. 2013). Scalf et al. (2013) suggest that dilution of a stimulus occurs due to the neural stimuli hindering the representation of the stimuli affecting the processing of the extraneous stimuli, while the cognitive load of an individual will also determine the efficacy and efficiency of the selective attention process.

Selective Attention in Child Psychology

As mentioned, selective attention is imperative to one’s daily functioning, avoiding informational system overload which could have maladaptive impacts on an individual. A prime example of this is within the pediatric ADHD population. Executive functioning deficits are commonly seen in children with ADHD, and given that there are often executive functioning difficulties in children diagnosed with ADHD, it is no surprise that these children would also have deficits with their selective attention abilities when compared to others (Brodeur and Pond 2001; Murphy et al. 2016). Brodeur and Pond (2001) also reported that older children were more efficient in their selective attention tasks than younger children (from both groups), suggesting that an individual’s cognitive load or executive functioning development may also vary due to age and other demographic factors.

The selective attention processes explained above all focus on the somewhat involuntary process the mind undergoes when deciding stimuli to attend to and which are distractions that should be ignored. Selective attention is also discussed in the context of intentional application on interpersonal interactions. This is seen most often in the child therapy and behavior management literature (Girard et al. 2018). The definition of selective attention from this perspective is the act of only providing attention for positive behaviors and withholding during negative, maladaptive behaviors (e.g., behavioral outburst, attention-seeking behaviors). This is also known as discriminate attention. This involves the process of active ignoring where one will deny the child any form of attention like conversation, eye contact, and positioning the body away from the child until the specific, problematic behavior has ceased. Structuring child-caregiver interaction using selective attention breaks Patterson’s coercive family process model (Patterson 1982). This model explains that the development of some children’s maladaptive behaviors derives from only receiving attention when engaging in negative behaviors such as noncompliance and aggression, creating more frequent child noncompliance and aggressive behaviors. This generates a cyclical, problematic coercive child-caregiver interaction. When selective attention is employed, the cycle is reversed, and the child learns to engage in positive and adaptive behaviors in order to gain their desired attention.


While there are numerous theories of how the process of selective attention works, the act of attending to relevant stimuli versus irrelevant stimuli, avoiding overloading the informational processing system, is crucial to one’s daily functioning. The intentional employment of selective attention has also proven important within the pediatric behavior management literature.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Oklahoma Health Sciences CenterOklahoma CityUSA
  2. 2.University of Southern MississippiHattiesburgUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • John F. Rauthmann
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversität zu LübeckLübeckGermany