Attention refers to a wide variety of phenomena, including arousal, alertness, consciousness, and awareness. In general, however, attention is defined as both a process of concentration, such as trying to remember, under-stand, or search for information, and a mental resource that has limited capacity. Attention is selective in that it involves focusing on a certain stimulus to the exclusion of others.
Focus of Attention
The focus of attention may be an external stimulus (e.g., a telephone, another person, or traffic) or an internal mental event (e.g., thinking about your day or trying to recall a name or past event). Stimuli that stand out, that is, are more salient, tend to capture a person’s attention. The salience of a stimulus depends on the larger social context. Stimuli that are unusual (e.g., a woman in a group of men), personally significant (e.g., hearing your name), or that dominate the visual (e.g., standing in front of you) or auditory field (e.g., a loud voice) are generally more salient.
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Types of Attention
Attention processes differ in the degree to which they are automatic or controlled. Input attention processes, which are the processes that involve getting information from the environment into our cognitive systems, tend to be reflexive, quick, and automatic. Such processes include alertness and arousal, the orienting response, and spotlight attention. Alertness and arousal are the most basic processes; they involve being awake and able to respond to information. The orienting response is the reflexive turning of your head and eyes toward a stimulus that is unexpected. Spotlight attention involves shifting your attention mentally (rather than physically shifting your head and eyes) in an effort to focus on stimuli.
Controlled attention involves deliberate, voluntary efforts to think and perform tasks. During controlled attention processes, we are consciously aware of our efforts to pay attention to certain stimuli. Controlled attention processes are thus slower than automatic attention processes. For example, when you learn to drive a car, you must pay close attention to each step of the driving process. Controlled attention processes consume mental resources. It is thus difficult to engage in several controlled processes at the same time, for example, to talk on the telephone while learning to drive a car.
Automatic attention processes occur more quickly and with less effort. They are often unintentional and require few cognitive resources. For example, after learning to drive a car, you perform many of the actions necessary to drive without being consciously aware of each one. A similar kind of automatic attention may occur when one encounters a member of an ethnic minority group and the stereotype of the group seems to come to mind automatically. In other words, the stereotype comes to mind quickly, unintentionally, and without effort.
Social judgments and behaviors usually vary in the degree to which they involve controlled or automatic attention. For example, the stereotype of a group may seem to come to mind automatically when one encounters a member of the group. However, stereotypes appear to come to mind only when one has enough mental resources to attend to them. Bringing to mind the stereotype of a group may also lead one to pay attention in a more deliberate and controlled way to other information about the appropriateness of the stereotype.
Causes and Consequences of Automatic and Controlled Attention
With a great deal of practice, many mental processes may become automatic. For example, typing, riding a bike, driving a car, and identifying the meaning of words all require attention at first. However, repeated exposure or practice may reduce the amount of attention needed to perform these tasks. Ultimately, highly practiced tasks may become automatic. That is, they can be performed with little conscious awareness and with few or no cognitive resources.
Being able to think and do things automatically seems highly desirable, because fewer cognitive resources are used, and thus people can pay greater attention to other stimuli. However, automaticity can sometimes be problematic. Automatic processes are hard to unlearn; undesirable mental processes or behavioral patterns may thus be difficult to change. For example, prejudice may occur relatively automatically, because people have come to associate negative characteristics with a certain ethnic group. Another undesirable consequence of automaticity is that the lack of conscious processing may result in errors. For example, people may go through the motions of driving a car without paying full attention and thus fail to notice a red light.
Implications of Attention
Researchers can determine the extent to which social judgment processes, such as stereotyping, are automatic or controlled by examining whether the process is disrupted as a result of increased demands on attention. Research participants may be asked to perform a social judgment task under high cognitive load, for example, while trying to keep in mind a long series of numbers. If the judgment process is disrupted (the judgment is more difficult to make) when cognitive demands are increased, then the process is considered to be controlled. If the social judgment process is not disrupted, even when other cognitive demands are high, then the process is considered to be automatic. For example, stereotypes are less likely to come to mind when cognitive demands are high, indicating that stereotypes do not come to mind in a completely automatic way. However, after stereotypes come to mind, people who are under high cognitive load are more likely to use them, indicating that stereotype use is a controlled process.
- Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Cognition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Bargh, J. A. (1982). Attention and automaticity in the processing of self-relevant information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 425-436.
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- Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition: Making sense of people. Cambridge: MIT Press.