Skip to main content

Selective Attention

Selective Attention


Selective attention involves the ability to attend to relevant information while ignoring irrelevant information. In early research on this topic, a critical question was whether attention occurs before (early selection) or after (late selection) the information is processed for meaning. One of the tasks used to answer this question is the dichotic listening task. In this task, participants listen to different passages of text presented in each ear through headphones. Researchers found that when questioned about the message in the unattended or ignored ear, participants detected changes in perceptual characteristics (e.g., pitch, volume) but did not notice other meaning-based changes. This result suggests the existence of a perceptual filter that selects information based on features such as volume or pitch. This filter serves to limit the amount of information entering short-term memory (i.e., the bottleneck in processing). However, other evidence suggests that unattended information also passes through the filter, though at an attenuated level, whereas still other results suggest that attention occurs much later, after all information has been processed for meaning. One current model of selective attention proposes that attention can occur early or late, depending on the perceptual and memory demands imposed by the task.

Selective attention is also investigated employing tasks using reaction time, measured in milliseconds, as the variable of interest. In the Stroop task, participants name the color of the ink in which a word is printed. Individuals are slower to respond in an incongruent condition (e.g., the word red printed in green ink) compared to a congruent condition (e.g., the word red printed in red ink), because the relatively automatic word-naming response must be inhibited in the incongruent condition. This interference is more pronounced with increased age, even in relatively healthy older adults. In visual search tasks, participants identify a target item among irrelevant distractor items. Under difficult conditions, when distractors are physically similar to the target, search becomes less efficient, particularly for older adults. However, under conditions in which the target is a unique item and tends to pop out from the distractors, search performance is comparable for younger and older adults. Using these tasks with brain-imaging techniques has allowed researchers to identify a frontoparietal network of brain regions involved in selective attention. Healthy older adults show increased activations, compared to younger adults, in this frontoparietal network, combined with decreased activations in visual cortical regions. The increased activation may serve as a compensatory mechanism for age-related declines in visual processing.

Other causes of individual differences in selective attention include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which has typically been associated with global deficits in attention. However, recent research using visual search tasks suggests no differential impairment in selective attention between ADHD children and matched control children, although ADHD-related deficits have been observed in other components of attention, such as the ability to switch between two different tasks. Although there is little evidence of sex differences in selective attention, a few studies using the dichotic listening and visual search tasks have found moderate differences in selective attention favoring women.

SEE ALSO Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder; Neuroscience


Lavie, Nilli, Aleksandra Hirst, Jan W. de Fockert, and Essi Viding. 2004. Load Theory of Selective Attention and Cognitive Control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 133 (3): 339354.

Wolfe, Jeremy M. 2003. Moving Towards Solutions to Some Enduring Controversies in Visual Search. Trends in Cognitive Science 7 (2): 7076.

Barbara Bucur

David J. Madden

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Selective Attention." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 14 Sep. 2019 <>.

"Selective Attention." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (September 14, 2019).

"Selective Attention." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved September 14, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.