6.1 Attention as Part of Cognitive Development: Definition & Process

Jan 13, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch6 Attentional Processes & Theories

We pay attention in various ways, every day. In this lesson, we will look into the four types of attention we consistently use and look at how attention spans change throughout a lifetime.

Definition of Attention

Right now, as you watch this video, you are exercising your attention. Attention is a topic that has been studied often by cognitive psychologists. It refers to focusing and processing information from our surroundings. While it involves our tending to facets of our environment, the nature of our attention can vary from event to event. There are four main types of attention that we use in our daily lives: selective attention, divided attention, sustained attention, and executive attention.

Types of Attention

Selective attention

Have you ever been at a loud concert or a busy restaurant, and you are trying to listen to the person you are with? While it can be hard to hear every word, you can usually pick up most of the conversation if you’re trying hard enough. This is because you are choosing to focus on this one person’s voice, as opposed to say, the people speaking around you. Selective attention takes place when we block out certain features of our environment and focus on one particular feature, like the conversation you are having with your friend.

Divided attention

Do you ever do two things at once? If you’re like most people, you do that a lot. Maybe you talk to a friend on the phone while you’re straightening up the house. Nowadays, there are people everywhere texting on their phones while they’re spending time with someone. When we are paying attention to two things at once, we are using divided attention.

Some instances of divided attention are easier to manage than others. For example, straightening up the home while talking on the phone may not be hard if there’s not much of a mess to focus on. Texting while you are trying to talk to someone in front of you, however, is much more difficult. Both age and the degree to which you are accustomed to dividing your attention make a difference in how adept at it you are.

Sustained attention

Are you someone who can work at one task for a long time? If you are, you are good at using sustained attention. This happens when we can concentrate on a task, event, or feature in our environment for a prolonged period of time. Think about people you have watched who spend a lot of time working on a project, like painting or even listening intently to another share their story.

Sustained attention is also commonly referred to as one’s attention span. It takes place when we can continually focus on one thing happening, rather than losing focus and having to keep bringing it back. People can get better at sustained attention as they practice it.

Executive attention

Do you feel able to focus intently enough to create goals and monitor your progress? If you are inclined to do these things, you are displaying executive attention. Executive attention is particularly good at blocking out unimportant features of the environment and attending to what really matters. It is the attention we use when we are making steps toward a particular end.

For example, maybe you need to finish a research project by the end of the day. You might start by making a plan, or you might jump into it and attack different parts of it as they come. You keep track of what you’ve done, what more you have to do, and how you are progressing. You are focusing on these things in order to reach the goal of a finished research paper. That is using your executive attention.

Attention Changes in Life

Researchers have studied how attention changes over our lifetime, especially our sustained attention. Lucy is five years old. Her mother puts Barney on the television for her while she makes lunch in the kitchen. Her mother hopes that Lucy will stay interested and seated long enough for her to finish up. But as usual, Lucy is not able to stay focused for more than 15 minutes. At first, she was mesmerized with the show, but then she loses interest and comes over to tug at her mom.

Lucy’s attention span is typical for her age. Researchers tell us that in order to find a child’s sustained attention, we should take their age and multiply it by two or three. Then we will have the approximate amount of minutes they can be attentive. Since Lucy is five years old, we take three times five, which equals the fifteen minutes she watched Barney.

During middle childhood, or between the ages of seven and eleven, children have an increased and more controlled attention span. And by age 12, the beginning of adolescence, they have an even longer sustained attention – usually up to 30 or 45 minutes. Once we hit adulthood, there is some growth and fine tuning of our attention abilities but no major milestones. This is also affected by our present day exposure to media, which offers us information quickly and with constant attention changing stimuli. Once we hit older adulthood, however, more noticeable changes begin to take place.

Jack has just turned 80. He notices that he has trouble focusing and thinking as quickly as he used to. For example, when he is driving and trying to make a turn at an intersection, he finds it difficult to know what stimuli to pay attention to first – the cars around him, the cars coming toward him, or the light. He was told by his son that he might need to stop driving, and he is frustrated by the changes aging brings.

Jack is not alone. It has been discovered that older adults commonly have decreased attention than middle aged and younger adults. Specifically, selective attention is usually more difficult as are divided and executive attention. Sustained attention decreases most clearly after about 77 years. While these decreases in attention generally take place, there are also exceptions where older adults have the same kind of attention as they did in their middle adult years.

Lesson Summary

To review, attention refers to the focusing and processing of information from our surroundings. There are four different types of attention: selective, or a focus on one thing at a time; divided, or a focus on two events at once; sustained, or a focus for a long period of time; and executive, or a focus on completing steps to achieve a goal.

Sustained attention, or attention span, has been studied often by researchers with regard to its changes during life. Typically, children have shorter attention spans, with the length increasing into adolescence and adulthood and then decreasing in late adulthood.

Learning Outcomes

Following this video lesson, you will be able to:

  • Define attention and describe the four types of attention
  • Explain how the different types of attention change throughout a person’s lifetime
6.2 How Divided Attention Affects Multitasking
5.9 The Dual Processing Theory of Consciousness