Lots of military funding in the early days of psychological attention research in the 1950s and 60s. The reason being that you can’t shoot at what you can’t attend to.

in Pyschology

Cocktail-party problem (1953)

The experiments by Colin Cherry in the 1950s first brought attention to the concept of selective attention. His experiments involved presenting participants with two different messages, one in each ear, and instructing them to focus on just one of the messages. This experiment, known as the dichotic listening task, revealed that while participants could easily recall details about the message they were instructed to focus on, they remembered almost nothing about the ignored message. What they did notice are things like a change in sex of the speaker or a change from voice to tones.

Cherry’s experiments were groundbreaking in psychology because they demonstrated that our perception is not just a passive process - we do not simply absorb all information presented to us. Instead, our perception is active and selective; we choose what information to pay attention to and disregard the rest.

This concept of selective attention has since been explored further and has become a fundamental principle in cognitive psychology. It has been applied in various fields such as advertising where marketers try to grab consumers’ selective attention or in education where teachers use strategies to keep students’ focused on their lessons.

Broadbent’s filter model (1958)

This model is an early selection theory of attention. It suggests that information processing is a two-step process. Firstly, all incoming information is held in a sensory store. However, due to the limited capacity of our attention, only some of this information can be processed further. This selection is done purely based on physical characteristics of the incoming stimuli, like the location or the pitch of a sound.

The selected information then passes through a filter to the short-term memory store where it can be attended to and comprehended. The unattended information does not reach conscious awareness and quickly fades away.

graph TB
A[Incoming Information] --> B[Sensory Store, e.g. iconic memory]
B -->|Based on physical characteristics| C[Selective Filter]
C -->|Bottleneck| D[Higher-level processing]
D --> E[Working memory]
B -- Unattended Information--> F[Fades Away]

Criticisms of Broardbent’s Filter Model

While Broadbent’s model was groundbreaking at its time, it has been criticized for being too simplistic. Critics argue that it does not account for the times when unattended information does get processed - like when your name is called in a crowded room and you instantly turn your head, even if you weren’t consciously listening for it.

Moray’s experiments (1959)

Neville Moray’s experiments in 1959 served to address some of the criticisms of Broadbent’s filter model. In his experiments, he had participants perform a dichotic listening task similar to Cherry’s experiment. However, he added the participants’ names into the unattended message.

He found that participants often noticed their name in the unattended message, suggesting that some unattended information is indeed processed at a higher level than Broadbent’s model would suggest. This finding supports what is known as the cocktail party effect - the ability to focus one’s auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli, as when a partygoer can focus on a single conversation in a noisy room.

Treisman’s attenuation theory (1960)

Anne Treisman proposed an alternative to Broadbent’s filter model called the attenuation theory. According to this theory, all incoming information is processed, but at different levels of intensity or ‘attenuation’.

In this model, instead of completely blocking out unattended information as suggested by Broadbent, the filter simply reduces its strength or prominence. This allows for important unattended information (like hearing your name) to be processed and reach awareness.

Deutsch & Deutsch’s late-selection theory (1963)

Deutsch & Deutsch proposed another alternative to Broadbent’s filter model, known as the late-selection theory. This theory suggests that all incoming information is processed to the level of meaning before the selection process takes place.

According to this model, it is not until after we have fully processed and understood a message that we decide whether to attend to it or not. This would explain why we can still notice meaningful unattended information, like our name being called in a crowded room.

Posner’s spotlight model (1980)

Posner et al. (1980) proposed the spotlight model of attention. According to this model, attention is like a spotlight that can be moved around the environment to highlight incoming information.

This model suggests that our attentional resources are limited and must be allocated selectively. The ‘spotlight’ can be focused narrowly on a single object or broadly on an entire scene. It can also be moved quickly from one location to another, allowing us to rapidly shift our focus as needed.

Posner, M. I., Snyder, C. R., & Davidson, B. J. (1980). Attention and the Detection of Signals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 109(2), 160–174. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.109.2.160