The process of focusing our attention only to a subset of the stimuli in the environment — usually those related to our goals.

Selective attention is a psychology concept closely related to the Von Restorff Effect.


  1. People often filter out information that isn’t relevant. This happens in order to maintain focus on information that is important or relevant to the task at hand. Designers must guide users’ attention, prevent them from being overwhelmed or distracted, and help them find relevant information or action.
  2. Banner Blindness is an example phenomenon of selection attention where visitors to a website consciously or unconsciously ignore banner-like information. Users have learned to ignore content that resembles ads, is close to ads, or appears in locations traditionally dedicated to ads. Avoid confusion by not styling content to look like ads or placing content and ads in the same visual section.
  3. Change blindness is another example phenomenon of selection attention that occurs when significant changes in an interface go unnoticed because due to the limitations of human attention and the lack of strong cues. Avoid this by analyzing your design for any competing changes that may happen at the same time and that may divert attention from each other.


Selective Attention Theory originated in the mid-20th century as researchers sought to understand how humans process information from their environment. The theory developed through several key contributions:

  1. Donald Broadbent’s Filter Theory (1958): Broadbent proposed the first comprehensive model of selective attention, known as the Filter Theory. He suggested that there is an attentional “bottleneck” that allows only limited information to be processed at a time. According to this model, information is initially filtered based on physical characteristics before semantic processing occurs.

  2. Cherry’s Cocktail Party Effect (1953): E. Colin Cherry conducted seminal work on the “cocktail party phenomenon,” using dichotic listening tasks to study how people selectively attend to one auditory stream while ignoring others.

  3. Anne Treisman’s Attenuation Model (1960): Treisman refined Broadbent’s theory, proposing that unattended information is not completely blocked but rather attenuated. This allowed for the explanation of how some unattended information could still be processed.

  4. Deutsch and Deutsch’s Late Selection Theory (1963): This theory proposed that all sensory information is fully processed for meaning before selection occurs, contrasting with Broadbent’s early selection model.

The development of these theories was driven by both practical concerns and theoretical interests. For instance, Mackworth’s research on vigilance in 1950 was motivated by concerns about radar operators’ performance during World War II. Throughout the 1950s to 1970s, research on attention shifted from primarily auditory tasks to visual tasks. This period also saw the emergence of capacity theories, such as Kahneman’s (1973) model, which viewed attention as a limited resource that could be divided among different tasks. These early theories and experiments laid the foundation for our current understanding of selective attention and continue to influence research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience today.


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