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Applied Psychology

Four Different Types of Attention

Nov 10, 2022 | By Jenna Van Schoor
Four Different Types of Attention - Global SACAP

We live in an increasingly busy world, with many sources of information and stimulation competing for our attention. This means that getting to grips with different types of attention is critical when it comes to understanding human behaviour and performing optimally.

But how and why are we attentive in the first place? Let’s discuss what attention is, and expand on four different types of attention and why they’re important.

What is attention?

In the article “How Psychologists Define Attention“, it is defined as the following:

“Attention allows you to ‘tune out’ information, sensations, and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on the information that’s important.”

Therefore, it can be defined as the act of focusing on a specific object, person or activity in our immediate environment at the expense of other objects or information. As such, our attention is always biased. Our attention spans are not always the same throughout our lives. We only have to look at how a child develops to understand that we learn to focus as we grow.

As adults, we can choose to focus in different ways. Understanding human behaviour and different types of attention can help us to learn and better interact with others.

Four different types of attention

There are four different types of attention that we’ll define: sustained, divided, selective and executive. These are not the only types, but we’ll also elaborate on why understanding each of these is so important.

1. Sustained Attention

Sustained attention means focusing on a person, task or activity for a certain time or until the relevant conversation, task or activity is complete. For example, we learn to hone this type of attention at school by engaging with fellow learners and teachers. Another example is when we learn through studying and writing tests and exams.

Another related type is known as focused attention, which involves being able to rapidly respond to external stimuli, such as loud noises. As you can imagine, this forms an important part of being able to survive and respond to changes in your environment.

2. Divided Attention

This involves trying to focus on many different conversations, tasks and activities at the same time, also known as multitasking. Although a common practice, it’s rarely effective, as we only have so much energy to devote to each task.

Related to this is alternating attention. It is similar to multitasking, but involves seamlessly moving from one task to another, instead of dividing your focus.

3. Selective Attention

Selective attention involves being able to focus on a specific task while simultaneously being able to block out any background noise or stimuli. This can be a difficult skill to master, depending on your level of sensitivity, but is a valuable tool in being able to function in a noisy world!

One example includes being able to read a book while there is loud background noise around you. However, it can also refer to not engaging with inner stimuli such as thoughts.

4. Executive Attention

Executive attention is similar to selective attention, as it involves being able to block out distractions and focus on a specific task. However, the difference is that this way of focusing also involves ruthless prioritisation and only focusing on activities that will help to achieve a certain goal.

For example, the managing director of a company can’t attend to everything that is going on, but they can block out all the hundreds of emails they receive and devote themselves to completing the critical tasks of the day.

Why is understanding attention important?

We’ve covered four types of attention and touched on some related ones. This will have given you some insight into the different ways we process information and engage with our environment.

But how is understanding these relevant to our daily lives? In the field of Applied Psychology, this knowledge can help us to ascertain what skills we need to learn, and how to function optimally in both social and business environments.

For example, multitasking might work in certain situations, where the tasks are not crucial or time-bound. But, if you are trying to multitask in a demanding work role, you might find yourself becoming thoroughly overwhelmed. To counter this, you can then learn more about how to hone your sustained and executive attention skills.

Learn about human behaviour with SACAP Global

At SACAP Global, we focus on offering specialised short courses that build multifaceted skills in the field of Applied Psychology. One of our most popular short courses, Factors Influencing Human Behaviour, explores how we focus and process information and stimuli in our environment.

In this short course, you will learn about the key constructs of human cognition, including the role, and importance, of attention in navigating opportunities and challenges in your life. If this sounds like something you’re interested in, register on our website for the next upcoming class, or contact us for further information.

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