Attention - A Brief History in Psychology

November 9, 2011

While psychology is considered a dominant discourse on the topic of attention, “interest in attention began in the field of philosophy” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 4). Philosophers mostly focused on the role of attention in consciousness awareness and thought and conducted little experimental research on the topic, but “their conceptual analysis of attention laid the foundation for the scientific study of attention in ensuing years” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 5).

According to Johnson and Proctor (2003),

During the period from 1860 to 1909, the study of attention was transformed, as was the field of psychology as a whole, to one of scientific inquiry with emphasis on experimental investigations. By 1909, many phenomena of concern to contemporary attention researchers had been discovered and investigated, and the study of attention was central to the field of psychology.

The views of William James (1890) on attention influenced the work of these early psychologists. I’ve written about James’ definition in an earlier post. James (2007, p. 416) further classified attention in the following fashion:

It is directed either to

a. Objects of sense (sensorial attention); or to

b. Ideal or represented objects (intellectual attention)

It is either

c. Immediate; or

d. Derived.

Attention may be either

e. Passive, reflex, non-voluntary, effortless; or

f. Active and voluntary.

The first classification indicates attention can be directed to stimulus that is physically present, as well as stimulus that is not. The second differentiates between attention which goes to stimulus that is interesting (immediate) or to stimulus that is associated with another interesting thing (derived). The third classification distinguishes attention which is drawn automatically towards a stimulus (referred to today as “exogenous control”) from attention which is deployed toward the stimulus voluntarily (referred to today as “endogenous control”).

In the period from 1920 to 1949, the research on attention slowed down because much of the psychological “research shifted to a behavioral emphasis” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 23). One of the important works on attention during this time period was that of A. T. Jerslid, a developmental psychologist. The major finding from Jerslid’s work had to do with the task-switching paradigm—the time to complete a list of tasks is longer when tasks alternate instead of just a single repeated task. There is a switching cost when going from one task to a different task (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 15). Another significant discovery during this time was the “psychological refractory period effect” by C. W. Telford (an educational psychologist) which is the observable delay of a second task when two tasks are being done “at more or less the same time” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 178). During this time period, J. R. Stroop “published what is certainly one of the most widely cited studies in the field of psychology, in which he demonstrated that stimulus information that is irrelevant to the task can have a major impact on performance” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 16), which came to be known as the Stroop effect.

The period from 1950 to 1974 was characterized by a major interest in human information processing, thus yielding “considerable information about the mechanism of attention, specifically those involved in auditory attention” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 20). The most important development was the information processing model of attention from D. E. Broadbent. Broadbent’s filter theory says that “information is held in a preattentive temporary store, and only sensory events that have some physical feature in common (e.g. spatial location) are selected to pass into the limited capacity processing system” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 19); i.e., one set of inputs from one sense is allowed in for processing while another set waits in a buffer. Modern work on attention is said to have began with Broadbent’s work (Moray, 2006, p. 3).

In the early 1970s there was a shift from studying auditory attention to visual attention, and a view that attention is a limited-capacity resource: “Kahneman’s (1973) model is the most well known of these unitary capacity, or resource, theories. According to this model, attention is a single resource that can be divided among different tasks in different amounts” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 19). In the later part of the 1970s “Navon and Gopher (1979) proposed that attention was better viewed as multiple resources” because studies showed it was “easier to perform two tasks together when the tasks use different stimulus or response modalities than when they use the same modalities” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 20).

In 1980 A. M. Treisman and G. Gelade developed the highly influential feature integration theory “in which subjects are to detect whether a target is present among distracters” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 21). Then in 1987 came the view by R. L. Newman and D. A. Allport of attention as a selection-for-action where “attentional limitations should not be attributed to a limited capacity resource or mechanism. Instead the limitations are byproducts of the need to coordinate action and ensure that the correct stimulus information is controlling the intended responses” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 22).

The theories and views of attention from 1920 until the last quarter of the 20th century have predominantly originated from cognitive psychology (Ward, 2005, p. 23). In a recent period of research, “a major focus has been on gathering neuropsychological evidence pertaining to the brain mechanisms that underlie attention” (Johnson & Proctor, 2004, p. 22). According to Ward (2004), “neuropsychology is the application of psychological principles to the understanding and rehabilitation of brain damage” (2005, p. 30). According to Johnson and Proctor (2003) “neuropsychological and behavioral data promises to advance the study of attention significantly in the first half of the 21st century” (p. 23).

Other influential thinkers in psychology on the topic of attention include Christopher D. Wickens (applied psychology) and Michael Posner (neuroscience). At some point I’ll look into their literature.

The bottom line of all of the above: The phenomenon of attention has survived essentially intact from the articulation of early philosophers through to the more detailed observations of early psychologists such as William James, until by 1909 it had become a central focus of psychological investigation. This is important because it establishes the legitimacy and significance of attention, which is fundamental to my area of inquiry and exploration.

James, W. (2007). The principles of psychology, Vol.1 (1st ed.). New York: Cosimo Classics.

Johnson, D. A., & Proctor, D. R. W. (2004). Attention: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Moray, N. (2006). Attention: From history to application. In A. F. Kramer, D. A. Wiegmann, & A. Kirlik (Eds.), Attention: From Theory to practice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA.

Ward, A. (2005). Attention: A neuropsychological approach (1st ed.). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

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2 Responses to “Attention - A Brief History in Psychology”

  1. Bigsam Adekunle on December 14th, 2012 7:54 am

    U’ve really done a great job with the history of Attention as explained here. But i still want to know if Ulric Neisser didnt make any contributions to the study of attention since cognitive psychology came into limelight with his work in 1967.

  2. ATCLisa on February 13th, 2013 3:46 pm

    Thank you for the reference of Ulric Neisser. The history of attention I’ve articulated is certainly brief. There are many other significant contributors to the body of work on attention that I didn’t cover. Thanks again.

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