How Different Tasks Impact Attention

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  • 0:33 Attention Definition
  • 0:52 Spot Light
  • 1:30 Zoom Lens Model
  • 2:09 Easy vs Difficult Search
  • 2:52 Multitasking
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michele Chism

Michele is presently a part time adjunct instructor at Faulkner University in the Counselor Education Department where she teaches Measurement and Assessment and Diagnosis and Treatment. I formerly taught at the University of West Alabama where I taught School Counseling and College Student Development Counseling. I was also the Student Success Coordinator for the College of Education.

Have you ever been somewhere talking to someone and realized that you blocked out everything around you but that person, but you don't know how you did it? In this lesson we will look at attention and how and why we choose to pay attention to one or more things.

Attention Definition

Think about the last time you attended a party. Brian attended a party recently where he ran into an old friend, Mike. As Brian and Mike were talking, it was as if they were the only two people in the room. The party was going on around them, the music was playing, people were laughing, and everyone was having a good time.

Then, Mike heard his name mentioned by someone in the room and his attention was diverted. He continued to try to listen to Brian but also hear what was being said about him. Mike found it difficult to listen to both speakers and had to get Brian to stop talking long enough to hear what was said.

Attention is technically defined as the process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring the others. As Mike and Brian showed us, we have difficulty concentrating on more than one thing at a time. In this lesson, we will be looking at how our attention is affected by people and events around us.

Theories of Attention

As mentioned, we tend to concentrate on one thing at a time. There are two theories of how this works. The first of these is based on the work of William James, who was one of the leading early researchers into attention. He described our visual attention as being like a spotlight, which has a focus, a margin, and a fringe. Our visual attention is drawn to the center, which is the focus area that draws our attention and extracts information from our visual scene. Surrounding it is the fringe, which attracts information for us that is not as clear, like the periphery of a spotlight. The cut-off is known as the margin.

Another theory called the zoom lens model adds to this the property of changing size. If you think about a camera with a zoom lens, you will remember that any change in the size of a lens' focus brings a trade off in the efficiency of its processing. The wider your area of viewing, the longer information takes to process. As Mike looked around the room to discover who was talking about him, he noticed Beth, who was talking to Mary. Expanding his focus to include not just Brian but Beth and Mary slowed the processing of his attention greatly.

Now let's take a look at a few real-life tasks to show how they impact our attention.

Easy Versus Difficult Search

Researchers discovered that when participants are asked to look at a group of items to find something specific, they can do so quickly, at the same pace, no matter how many items are in the grouping. This is called an easy search. This is the idea behind puzzles that ask you to find the one item in the picture that is different from the rest.

Researchers also found that if participants need to find a group of items, the search slows down and the amount of time it takes is longer. Difficult searches require one to focus on each item at a time, which slows down the search and the time it takes to find the items. Many puzzles, like word find puzzles, are designed so that the individual looks for a series of items in a picture or a series of letters.

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