The varieties of attention
James’s description of attention
William James: leading American psychologist 20 cent.
most famous passage concerning attention (see p.86)
Harold Paschler (1998): no one knows what attention is, there may even be not be an ‘’it” there to be known
Exemplifies how complex attention is
Attention refers to a variety of possible processes and methods for studying them.
Early research driven by practical problems experienced when many streams of speech reaches a person at the same
Dichotic listening: Participants are exposed to 2 verbal messages presented simultaneously, and are required to answer
questions posed in only one of them.
When participants knew in advance which voice contained the required message, performance
Selective attention: Attending to relevant information and ignoring irrelevant info.
Cocktail party phenomenon: The capacity for attending to one conversation in a crowded room in which many other
conversations are going on.
Cherry (1953): Shadowing task: Exposing the subject to two messages simultaneously while repeating one of
People must filter out info to which they did not wish to attend
Filer: a stage of info processing that admits some messages but blocks others.
Neisser and Becken (1975); selective looking occurs when one is exposed to 2 events, but attends only to 1.
Result: People were not distracted by the unattended sequence.
Late selection: The hypothesis that both relevant and irrelevant stimuli are perceived, so the person must actively ignore
the irrelevant stimulus in order to focus on the relevant one. E.g. stroop task.
The stroop task
Stroop task: A list of colour names, each of which is printed in a colour other than its name. e.g. green.
Naming the colours of the words takes longer than reading the colour words themselves.
Constantly distracted by the tendency to read the names.
Most useful research tool ever invented, employed in +++ experiments.
Compares performance in an incongruent condition with control conditions.
Incongruent condition takse more time than control condition.
If a process= overlearned, tendency to execute that process whether or not we wish to do so.
The participant is required to deliberately inhibit reading the colour words in order to name the colour.
Controlled vs. automatic processes: processes to which we must pay attention in order to execute them properly
(controlled processes) versus processes that run themselves without the necessity of our paying attention to them
Automatic processes tend to be called bottom-up/stimulus-driven/involuntary
Controlled processes tend to be called top-down/goal-directed/voluntary
Hypnosis= way to investigate stroop phenomenon. Highly suggestible participants are more susceptible to hypnosis.→ do not show the stroop effect.
Apparently automatic processes can be controlled w/ hypnosis.
Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: area of the brain that may exert top-down bias that favours the selection of task-
Anterior cingulate cortex: Area of the brain that may detect conflicting response tendencies of the sort that the stroop
Attention capture and inatentional blindness.
Attention capture: The power of some stimuli on some occasions to elicit attention in spite of the fact that we did not
intend to pay attention to them.
Ecologically useful because attention is drawn to new objects in the field, these may represent either danger or
Inattentional blindness: Our failure to attend to events that we might be expected to notice.
Simons (2000); study using selective looking paradigms.
Participants were showed overlapping teams playing basketball (white / black)
They had to pay attention to only one team.
Result: 73% did not notice a gorilla walk across the screen.
Mack & Rock (1998): investigate inattentional blindness
Participants were shown a series of asymmetrical crosses
Asked to judge which arm of the cross was longer
4 trial: unexpectedly shown a small black square
Result: Participants reported they did not see anything other than the cross.
Happy cartoon face showed instead of a black square
Result: it was detected 85% of the time
Faces attract attention to a greater extent than will other classes of stimuli.
Flanker task: Experiment in which participants may be influences by an irrelevant stimulus beside the target.
Participants had to search for the name of a famous show business personality or politician.
The name was presented on a screen either alone or in a list of letter strings
Picture of the person was on the periphery of the screen, had to ignore the face
Press a key when the name was identified
Result; takes longer to identify the name correctly as the length of the list ↗, Incongruent
conditions take longer than congruent ones.
Same experiment with picture of fruit/ musical instruments
As task difficulty ↗, faces are still distractors, but fruit/musical instruments are not: faces are attended to no
matter what participants do.
Representations of the human body also captures our attention.
Domain-specific modules: The hypothesis that parts of the brain may be specialized for particular tasks, such as
Over time, we gain expertise in dealing with particular categories of stimuli, certain parts of the brain may be
recruited to process events with which we have ++ experience.
A person’s name/highly meaningful stimuli have the power to capture attention
Dual tasks and the limits of attention
How many things can we attend do at once? It depends on what we do and how skilled we are.
Voluntary task + automatic task = easier than 2 goal-directed task at once.
When tasks are complex, they interfere with one another.
Capacity model: Hypothesis that attention is like a power supply than can only support a limited amount of attentional
activity.Structural limits: hypothesis that attentional tasks interfere with one another to the extent that they share similar
Central bottleneck: hypothesis that there is only one path through which information relevant to only one task at a time
Divided attention: The ability to attend to more than one thing at a time.
Spelke, Hirst & Neisser (1976): study of divided attention
Attempted to train participants to read short stories and copy dictated words. Difficult at first.
After 6 weeks, good comprehension but not picking up info about the words being dictated
Told to notice special characteristics of the dictated words
Result: able to pick up info from dictated words while reading
Follow-up study (1980): participants had to read, and copy complete sentences
Tested to see if they could recognize sentences that had been dictated
Result: they falsely recognized inferences as being sentences they actually heard.
Shows that they were not writing sentences mechanically, they genuinely understood the sentences they were
Does not disprove the hypothesis that participants are switching rapidly between the 2 tasks.
No evidence for a central bottleneck that cannot be overcome by practice
The ability to perform tasks simultaneously without interference may require that the stimulus and responses
phases of each process be from different modalities.
Set: temporary, top-down organizations that facilitate some responses, while inhibiting others, in order to achieve the
There are ++ kinds of sets.
Task switching: People mush change from working on one task to working on another. Usually studied in situations in
which the switch is voluntary.
Intentional executive control to select and implement the task-set or the combination of task sets that are
appropriate to our dominant goals.
Switch cost: The finding that performance declines immediately upon switching tasks.
May be due to the time required to reset cognitive system so that the behaviours appropriate to the current
task are engaged once again and those from the previous task are inhibited.
Arrington & Logan (2004): experiment on task sw