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What Is Social Attention?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Social attention is the focus of cognitive processes on an individual or group in a mixed setting. In a simple example, a person at a cocktail party stopping to have a conversation is exhibiting social attention. This plays an important role in human interaction. People with cognitive and neurological problems may not be able to engage in complex social tasks, or could have difficulty with sustained attention tasks like listening to a teacher throughout an hour long class.

Gaze is one of the most important elements of social attention. The refocusing of the gaze on an object or person of interest activates a complex neural network. Body language can also be involved; the speaker at the cocktail party, for instance, may orient the head and body towards the conversation partner, indicating interest and a desire to continue the conversation. Other senses like hearing can activate to process information once the brain directs attention to a specific subject.

This is not just seen in real-world environments where people interact physically. A form of social attention can be seen in virtual spaces as well in the form of hits on a website, indicating interest from members of the public, or comments and ratings on content. These more abstract forms can still involve some of the same cognitive processes as people decide where they want to focus their attention and how sustained it should be. Social cues like avatars to identify speakers also help people interact in virtual spaces.

Humans respond to attention as well as directing it. People who feel they are not subjects of attention may experience distress or irritation, as for example when a lecturer gets frustrated with gossiping students at the back of a classroom. Attention is also a form of cognitive reward that may encourage people to repeat behaviors in the future to obtain similar rewards. A dancer expects attention from the audience during a performance, not just applause at the end, and is more likely to continue pursuing dance when audiences engage and participate.

Some disabilities that impact cognition can affect social attention. People with these disabilities may have difficulty with tasks like focusing their gaze on targets or using body language that indicates they are interested. It can also be challenging to maintain focus for extended periods of time. People may fidget, look away, or engage in other tasks as their minds drift. Studies on social attention suggest that early intervention can help people develop cognitive skills to direct and sustain attention.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By shell4life — On Feb 14, 2013

The way that a man pays attention to me when we first start talking makes a huge impression. Some people are not capable of focusing their social attention on one person at a time, but I am looking for someone who can.

If a man looks me in the eyes and pays attention to what I'm saying, then I am interested in him. I need to feel like he is listening as well as understanding what I'm talking about.

If a guy keeps gazing around the party while I'm talking, I feel like I have lost his attention and he might be scoping the scene for other females. Nothing turns me away faster than a man who can't focus on me.

By DylanB — On Feb 13, 2013

@healthy4life – I don't like it when people do that, either. However, I do understand the need for social attention online, especially since that is where most people spend their spare time these days.

When I post a photo or a comment, I want people to say something about it or like it. I admit that I am trying to get some attention. I'm not usually seeking pity, but I do like it when what I say gets noticed.

By healthy4life — On Feb 12, 2013

I have noticed some people on social media sites saying things just to get attention from others. They say things that are very vague and depressing, in hopes that other people will ask them what's wrong or show some compassion.

I don't like responding to comments like, “Sometimes I wonder if it's all worth it,” or, “I'm sad today.” To me, these are just attempts to elicit a response from other people.

Strangely enough, if a person said something like this to me in person or on the phone, I'd be more than willing to respond or question them. Something about saying it online in front of a bunch of other people just makes it seem less sincere and more of a desperate cry for as much social attention as possible.

By StarJo — On Feb 11, 2013

I remember losing interest quickly in adult conversations as a child. When my parents would have people over, they would all pay attention to each other and talk for hours, but I would get bored and go to my room after about fifteen minutes.

My social attention was directed toward any children the adults might have brought with them. We would go into another room and have a play party of our own, totally removed from the social interaction going on in the living room.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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