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What Are the Different Theories of Attention?

By Angela Farrer
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The different theories of attention are the capacity theory, the mental bottleneck theory, and a few related theories of selective attention. Each of these theories uses models based on the ideas of the mental health researchers who first contributed to them. Psychologists who study attention theory attempt to determine the exact cognitive process of how people focus their attention on external stimuli. They also form and refine theories of attention concerning why certain people have longer versus shorter attention spans. The psychology of attention uses various relevant theories to find effective treatment options for people with noticeable attention problems.

Capacity theories of attention explain that people have a limited amount of attention to devote to any one thing at any given moment. A lot of competing information from different sources can cause their attention to reach its capacity rather quickly. When people's attention capacity hits its maximum limit, they generally experience a diminished ability to pay attention to any of the external information. Some psychologists who study these types of attention theories use them to point out the actual ineffectiveness of multitasking despite its prevalence in modern life. Multitasking and the frequent use of technology are additional contributing factors to some theories about attention.

A bottleneck attention theory dictates that everyone has a natural mental filter that will only allow certain amounts of information through at a time. This filter sorts what people first perceive as important based on an impression that lasts only a fraction of a second. Other stimuli that the brain designates irrelevant either does not pass through the filter or passes through only in pieces. Many psychologists study bottleneck theories of attention to determine why some people filter out certain kinds of information while others do not. This examination of the bottleneck attention theory often forms a basis for selective attention theories.

Theories about selective attention draw connections between peoples' varying attention levels and other related factors. Existing biases, interests, and past experiences can all influence how closely different people pay attention to a given topic. Psychologists can also draw conclusions about different people's innate abilities to give a subject their direct attention. Some theories of attention frequently help researchers determine the root causes of conditions such as attention deficit disorder. Many of these attention problems have underlying genetic causes, although some specific environmental factors can usually worsen or strengthen the ability to focus and concentrate.

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Discussion Comments

By OeKc05 — On Feb 13, 2013

@lighth0se33 – I understand what you mean. My husband has ADD, yet he can still tune into topics that he's really interested in.

Usually, he can't concentrate long enough to carry on a solid conversation. Before I have one sentence finished, he has interrupted with some irrelevant topic.

However, if people are talking about restoring old vehicles or anything to do with cars, he listens. He also joins in the conversation and has a lot to offer. This just goes to show that even people with attention disorders can use selective attention.

By giddion — On Feb 12, 2013

Multitasking may be ineffective in some situations, like at work or when paying close attention is really important. I understand why experts studying the capacity theory would say this.

However, at home, it can be a lifesaver. When there is laundry to be done, dishes to be washed, and dinner to be cooked, you can't just do one thing at a time. You have to do a little of each in between steps, like put the clothes in the dryer while the bread is thawing out.

If I didn't multitask around the house, nothing would ever get completed. I get everything done correctly, because I've been doing it all at once for years. It takes practice.

By Kristee — On Feb 11, 2013

The bottleneck theory of attention strongly applies to my sister. She actually told me one time that she filters out most of what I say.

There must be a lot going on in her mind. It's either that or the fact that she doesn't think I have anything relevant to say.

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 11, 2013

My ability to pay attention to certain conversation topics is based on how much I care about what is being said. When the conversation turns to politics, I totally tune out.

I can't help it, because I just don't keep up with politics. I change the subject if someone tries to have a one-on-one conversation with me on this topic.

However, if someone wants to talk about art or music, I could listen all day long and give my input, too. Those are my areas of interest, and they are what I focus my attention on the most.

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