Anne Treisman & Feature Integration Theory

Instructor: Alyson Froehlich

Ali teaches college courses in Psychology, a course on how to teach in higher education, and has a doctorate degree in Cognitive Neuroscience.

Need an easy tip for finding your friend in a crowd? In this lesson, you will learn about Anne Treisman's feature integration theory and how your attention is like a spotlight that can become wider or more focused.

Two Types of Attention

You are in a crowded shopping mall and you are searching for your friend. You know she can't be far. She has brown hair and glasses, but many other people have brown hair or glasses. Finally you remember that she is wearing a hot pink jacket. Voila - there she is. It's as if that hot pink jacket has just popped right out from the crowd.

In this example, you just witnessed two types of attention at work. The first type of attention required you to search more carefully, person by person. The second type of attention allowed you to scan the crowd all at once, requiring no effort at all. What you were looking for the second time (the hot pink jacket) popped right out at you.

Let's take a look at another example. In each of the two boxes below, look for the letter R among the P and Q distractors.

Can you find the R in each of these two boxes?
Left box- letter R with a few Ps and Qs; Right box- letter R with many Ps and Qs

What did you notice? Was the R a bit easier to find in the box on the left than in the box on the right? You may have even had to search within the box on the right for a few seconds in order to find the R. This is because the box on the right has more distractors (more P's and Q's). This is kind of like searching for your friend's brown hair and glasses in the mall. When there are only a few other people, it is easy to find your friend. However, the more additional people there are, the longer it takes to locate your friend.

Okay, let's try one more example. Now, see if you can find the L among the O distractors in each of the two boxes below.

Can you find the L in each of these two boxes?
Left box: Letter L with a few Os; Right box: Letter L with many Os

This time the search was a bit easier, wasn't it? It's as though the L just pops right out of all of the O's. In fact, it probably didn't take you much more time to find the L in the box on the right than the box on the left. Even though the box on the right has more distractors in it, the amount of time it takes to search for the O in either box is about the same. This is like searching for your friend's hot pink jacket in the crowded mall. It really shouldn't matter how many other people are in the mall so long as your friend is one of the only ones wearing a hot pink jacket. Why is that?

Feature Integration Theory

Remember how, at the beginning, I mentioned that there are two different types of attention at work? That is exactly what researcher Anne Treisman has proposed is going on when we search for anything in our environment. In her feature integration theory, she explains that we use a more automatic type of attention when we are searching for a single feature, like the hot pink color of your friend's jacket. However, when we need to search for a combination of features, like both your friend's glasses and her brown hair, a different type of attention is needed, which is more deliberate and slow.

In the boxes above with the L's and the O's, the target (the L) can be distinguished from the distractors (the O's) by searching for a straight line since the O's don't have any straight lines. According to feature integration theory, in displays like these where a single feature can be used to search for a target among a set of distractors, a parallel search takes place. This means that all of the items can be searched at the same time. Because all of the items can be searched at the same time, increasing the number of distractors does not increase the amount of time that it takes to find the target. The target just seems to pop out regardless of the number of distractors.

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