What is Selective Attention?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The issue of why people pay attention, how much they do and to what is often more referred to as selective attention. In any busy scene, be it a classroom or a freeway, it’s virtually impossible to note everything at once. What a person pays attention to in these circumstances is what they select to pay attention to, though it may be noted that selection is not necessarily conscious. Selected attention can then be viewed as the process by which people find something upon which to concentrate, and the level of concentration they can continue to exert as distractions arise.

While on a busy street, people choose what to concentrate on, as they can't pay attention to everything.
While on a busy street, people choose what to concentrate on, as they can't pay attention to everything.

There are many theories as to why people select certain things or why they have varying levels of selective attention. Some believe that the memory or the working attentional state can only hold so much at a time; so people filter out what they deem unnecessary or unimportant, usually without being aware of the filtering process. A number of theories have linked the study of attention to the senses and to the idea of how these arouse focus decisions in humans, and others believe neural function is very much involved. For instance, if two people call someone else at the same time, to whom will that person respond? Possibly, people are already attuned to respond to a more familiar voice, a louder voice, or a voice of a certain pitch, and so they’ll automatically select which person gets the response, and they may not even realize another person has also called them.

TV ads attempt to gain the attention of their viewers.
TV ads attempt to gain the attention of their viewers.

Degree of selective attention may vary depending on people, and some people have low attention levels, particularly if they have certain learning disorders. Conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can make it challenging for students to stay appropriately focused and any distractions may make a student lose focus. It’s hard for the ADHD child to remain in touch with a single thing, though at times they can also exhibit hyper focus.

Children may have selective attention while playing electronic games.
Children may have selective attention while playing electronic games.

In a slightly different fashion, those with forms of autism can have focus difficulties too, though principally the difficulty has to do with selection. Autism is sometimes described as receiving “all channels” on the radio station, where the person is possibly paying attention to nearly everything. Trying to filter out most of the channels to pay attention to one thing is often the challenge of those with disorders on the autism spectrum; in other words, they can’t tune in to a single channel and are flooded with too many choices.

Selective attention may come into play if a child is asked to spend time doing homework.
Selective attention may come into play if a child is asked to spend time doing homework.

There are many other potential conditions that may inhibit attention of this type. Poor sleep makes people more easy to distract, and shift workers in particular can have this problem. Any form of brain injury can also reduce attention level, too.

One way in which the concept of selective attention is used out of the cognitive and learning fields is in advertisement. When advertisers craft ads, they have to try to do so in ways that will draw in people to watch them. A number of things might be employed, as for instance appealing to certain age groups with visuals, music, or other, that are most likely to get noticed. This a challenging job given the many potential distractions that may be occurring in a person’s home when the TV is on, but there are clearly some advertisers quite skilled at grabbing the attention of desired audiences and holding it for a few seconds.

Disinterest in specific material may manifest as a short attention span.
Disinterest in specific material may manifest as a short attention span.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I understand the selective attention and selective hearing, but what do you call it when you send someone an email so the words are written in from to them and yet they interpret it as something completely different.

For example, what if I write, "I don't think he will like that," and someone reads it to say, 'He does not like that," even though that is not what I wrote.

It can sometimes easily be seen if you just identify the noun and the verb in the sentence. The noun in the first sentence is "I", verb: "think". In the second sentence, the noun is, "He", verb: "like". Therefore "I think" and "He likes" are completely different in meaning. And yet this happens all the time. Why? What is this? It seems to be happening more and more these days. Is it an attention disorder?


Cupcakes15-This often leads a teacher to think that the child is not working up to their potential even though the child may be suffering from a learning disability.

An educational psychologist as well as a neurologist should test children afflicted with this condition.

Miami Children’s Hospital has a program devoted to diagnosing and treating ADHD. A children’s hospital is an excellent resource in order to treat children selective attention memory.

Often these children suffer from low attention memory which makes building concepts in learning difficult.

There is a non profit organization that has multiple chapters throughout the country that offer a support group for parents as well as children affected with ADHD.

This group called CHADD gives children a chance to meet other kids with the same condition. It also provides parents with information that could help them deal with the disorder in a more positive fashion.


Moldova- That is so true. Selective attention perception is low among those afflicted with ADHD.

ADHD is an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that affects both children and adults. It could be a very frustrating condition because the person afflicted with this condition has trouble finishing a task or project.

Often, their mind becomes distracted and any minor stimuli can set this off. Many children fall behind in school because not only can they not finish their school work, but it is difficult for them to concentrate when teachers are offering lectures.

This makes learning difficult and is not uncommon for children with ADHD to be retained due to the academic difficulties.

It is a misconception that these children are not smart, on the contrary many have gifted intellect, but although their mental capacity for some subjects is superior, they are not always balanced in all subjects.


One example of selective attention is when a child does not listen when discussing a chore or homework assignment that needs to be done and eventually does not do it.

This same child could be told pleasant news about a trip or a toy that you would buy for them and they are all ears.

In this situation, the child tunes out what they don’t want to hear, but absorbs what they do enjoy hearing.

This is why most people are not effective when they resort to nagging. The reason is simple, children tend to tune out negative information and if the nagging is lengthy enough they will avoid anything that is mentioned.

In order to develop attention memory, it is best to have the child repeat the task that you asked him or her to do. This way you can check to see if the child is paying attention. This is just one attention theory regarding selective attention in psychology.

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