Imagine that you are trying a new recipe from a cookbook for dinner. As you read the instructions, someone is watching television in the background and the noisy washing machine is running. Despite the distractions, you still manage to read and follow the cookbook. This is because of selective attention psychology.

Read on to explore what selective attention is. You’ll be surprised at the extent to which we pay attention selectively to our tasks.

What Is Selective Attention?

Before exploring the definition of selective attention, let’s understand what attention means. Attention refers to a cognitive process that helps us respond to and interact with something or someone. Paying attention involves focusing on or tuning out information, perceptions or sensations.

Selective attention is a type of attention. It helps you focus on a particular task for a certain period of time. Since our attention is limited in terms of capacity and duration, selective attention allows us to focus on things that are relevant at the moment. In short, we center our attention on certain components of the environment by ignoring the rest or pushing them into the background.

Here are some everyday examples of selective attention:

  • Listening to your favorite podcast while driving to work

  • Having a conversation with a friend in a crowded place

  • Reading your book on a public transport bus

Types Of Selective Attention

There are two key types of selective attention we use to navigate our environment at any given moment.

  1. Visual

To understand how selective visual attention works, let’s look at these two major models:

  • Spotlight Model

According to this model, visual attention works like a spotlight—we select information by concentrating on a focal point. The area surrounding the focal point is called the fringe. The fringe is visible but doesn’t fall under your direct focus. The area outside the fringe is the margin which has little to zero focus. For example, when you use a magnifying glass, you focus only on the relevant or important text. However, certain areas, such as the white space on the sides, are still visible even if you choose not to focus on them. These are the fringe and margin areas.

  • Zoom-Lens Model

Similar to the Spotlight model, the Zoom-Lens model suggests that we can increase or decrease our focus just like a zoom lens of a camera. But the focus is larger because you can zoom out and choose to focus on more information.

  1. Auditory

Imagine that you’re eating dinner and catching up with an old friend at a restaurant. Despite the clanking of cutlery and the sound of others talking, you manage to chat. The ability to focus your attention while filtering out the unnecessary noise is known as the ‘cocktail party effect’, first described by cognitive scientist Edward Colin Cherry in 1953. Cherry discovered that some people could focus on a single talker or conversation in a noisy environment by tuning out other sounds. Business conferences are a great space to observe the cocktail party effect and understand the power of auditory selective attention theory.

Selective Attention Theories

Selective attention has been a topic of interest among various researchers and theorists. Here are some theories of selective attention that will shed light on how the concept has evolved over the years.

  1. Broadbent’s Filter Model

Donald Eric Broadbent, an experimental psychologist, posited that we use a selective filter while processing information. In other words, since our capacity to pay attention is limited, we determine which information we want to attend to.

  1. Treisman’s Attenuation Theory

Psychologist Anne Treisman proposed the Attenuation Theory to account for the fact that people were still processing unattended information. Broadbent’s Filter Model couldn’t address this gap, and it’s safe to say that Treisman’s model added layers of sophistication. In a nutshell, Attenuation Theory suggests that we process both attended and unattended information.


It’s safe to say that if you’re good at paying selective attention to tasks, you’re good at ignoring distractions and concentrating on your priorities. Harappa Education’s Listening Actively course will help you navigate distractions and listen to others respectfully and empathetically. The Listening Climate in particular will teach you about the best practices used by organizations to improve active listening skills. Moreover, the HARP–Hearing, Attention, Response and Perception–Equation will help you pay close attention and respond appropriately to others. You’ll learn how to connect with others and use your attention skills to your advantage.

Explore topics such as Types of Attention, How to Improve Your Attention Span & Active Listening from Harappa Diaries and fine-tune your communication skills.

Related articles

Discover more from Harappa with a selection of trending blogs on the latest topics in online learning and career transformation