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Selective Attention: We Notice What We Notice and Ignore the Rest

Selective Attention: We Notice What We Notice and Ignore the Rest

Sometimes people have this idea that reality runs like a video tape before us. One in which we simultaneously perceive everything going on. If it happened while we were there, we saw it. No question. And everyone who was also there also saw the same tape.

But scientists studying memory, cognition, and attention have established this is not at all how it works.

Instead, at any given moment, we’re bombarded by more stimuli than we could ever possibly intake. And consciousness is a process of selectively attending to those various stimuli and making meaning out of the world, based on which details we lock into and the meaning that we attribute to them.

It’s a fairly complicated, if imperfect, process that takes place smoothly — usually at a place beyond our own conscious perception.

There have been a number of theories over the years regarding precisely how and why selective attention occurs. Here is a comprehensive summary of that area of scientific inquiry, for interested parties.

Briefly, most of the conflict between researchers waging war among themselves has been re:

  • the part that physical properties of a stimulus plays in whether or not it grabs our attention
  • the part that semantic properties (the meaning) of the stimulus plays

One thing is clear, however, in the course of all of this study: We do select what we attend to. And much of what happens does tend to escape our notice.

For things we do pay attention to, it does seem to depend both (to some degree) on how strong a stimulus is in a physical sense (e.g., how loud a noise is or how brightly colored something is, etc.), and how personally meaningful that stimulus is (are they saying our name? is the person approaching us someone we know personally?, etc.).

Remembering Selective Attention Helps Me Be More Patient When Our Versions of Events Differ

By far the most useful part of selective attention theory for me has been acknowledging its very existence. Especially at times of conflict.

If I find myself arguing with someone else about an incident that we both witnessed, or a conversation we both had with one another, it’s important for me to keep in mind that it’s unlikely that either of us has perfect recall of it. Not only do memories vary (and memory, too, tends to be a rather imperfect process), but our very perception of the incident at the moment it occurred might be entirely different.

Our selective attention filters may have focused on different stimuli, causing us to leave an identical interaction with radically different conclusions.

Remembering this helps me to stay more patient with the person I’m arguing with. And refrain from hastily jumping to the conclusion that they’re purposefully misleading me by insisting that things played out a different way than I could swear they did.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

Featured Image: CC BY – R. C. Mariner