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The Six Laws Of Attention

Marc Green

I have talked about inattention
elsewhere, so it only seems fair to spend some pixels talking about attention. People are often accused of failing to pay attention, being "inattentive," usually with the implication of having committed blameworthy behavior. This amounts to saying that the person was paying attention to one thing when he should have been paying attention to something else. The question then becomes: why was the person paying attention to one thing rather than to another.

Accusations of inattention have several inherent assumptions about the control of attention. People are always aware of where and what they are attending. The deployment of attention is always a choice, and people always have complete, conscious control over it. People should always know where and when to appropriately deploy attention in a given situation. On the other hand, people should know to always "expect the unexpected." In fact, all of these assumptions are incorrect as general rules.

A fair evaluation of behavior rests, not on errant assumptions, but rather on an understanding of how attention really works. Attention is a complex phenomenon that has been extensively studied for many years. However, there are 6 basic Laws of Attention that capture its key aspects. The following Laws are adapted from Reason, & Mycielska (1982), and are somewhat amplified from Green et al, (2008).

1. Attention is a limited resource.

People have a fixed amount that must be allocated according to need. To use a popular analogy, attention is like a bucket of water. People draw upon it as needed, but every dipper full and every teaspoon full leaves less for other purposes. However, the total attentional capacity (vigilant attention) can vary in different circumstances.

First, each sense modality has some separate attentional resource. An auditory task interferes less with a visual task than would a second visual task. It is much easier to monitor the road ahead while talking on a cell phone than when looking at the navigation system. However, attention to one modality can impair attention to another (e .g., Sinnett, Costa, and Soto-Faraco, 2006).

Second, overall vigilant attention capacity varies. People who are fatigued, bored, older or under the influence of alcohol or drugs may exhibit low arousal and have less attentional capacity. Even "normal" people suffer from the "vigilance decrement," the lowering of attentional capacity after 20-30 minutes of monitoring the same situation, and from the effects of circadian rhythms, 24 hour cycles of biological arousal. Conversely, humans have evolved some adaptive mechanisms to simulate an expanded attentional capacity. The most common are expectation, "automaticity," "heuristics" and "biases" (e .g. Green, et al, 2008). These enable us to perform tasks without significant drain on attention.

[At this juncture, I'm sure that someone will be thinking that people and especially drivers should "expect the unexpected." It's a nonsensical statement since it is a classic oxymoron. You cannot literally expect the unexpected. Moreover, the number of "unexpected" events is infinite. No one can expect them all. It also runs directly contrary to the inherent satisficing nature of human behavior and thought, e. g., confirmation bias. Since unexpected events are not part of any internalized schema, they cannot be accessed by automatic mental processes. The person must consciously and continuously think about them, which both creates stress and fatigue and consumes attention away from more likely and important high probability events. Remember, attention is not free. It is a zero-sum game. The more attention allocated to the unlikely event, the less that is available for the likely event. Lastly, the lower the probability of the event, the more evidence required to accept it is true. This slows response because the person needs to collect lots of information to overcome the natural confirmation bias.]

One corollary of this limited resource law is that much of the world goes unattended and unnoticed most of the time - the viewer is inattentionally blind to it. Humans simply do not have enough attention to be aware of everything. This is actually a good thing most of the time. Without attention, we could not focus on specific tasks. We could not concentrate on relevant information and ignore irrelevant information. When attentional filtering gets us into trouble, it is usually because there is too much information to handle or because violated reasonable (and unconsciously learned) expectation of what is relevant.

Unfortunately, the limitations of attention are not intuitively obvious because we are not aware of the sensory input that fails to penetrate attentional filtering. This creates the false subjective impression that we sense everything there is to sense. However, the existence of this filtered sensory input is easy to demonstrate. Feel the sensation of the soles of your feet on your shoes. I'd bet that you were unaware of that sensory information until I pointed it out.

2. Attention is selective.

People attend some things to the exclusion of others. This follows directly from Law #1, as there is too little mental resource to attend everything. On the other hand, attention is usually allocated to more than one information source because people are invariably performing multiple tasks simultaneously (e .g, Hancock, Mouloua, Senders, 2007). The manner in which people voluntarily and involuntarily allocate attention is the main focus of chapter 4 in Green, et al. (2008).

This Law is also easy to demonstrate. When watching a TV sports channel or a new channel with a rolling ticker along the bottom below the main picture, it is possible to attend either the banner or the picture but not both. The classic auditory example is the "Cocktail Party" Phenomenon" where you are having a conversation with one person and are generally oblivious to the other conversations around you, unless you move your attention to one.

3. Consciousness requires attention.

The cocktail party phenomenon illustrates that humans have a single stream of conscious attention which is difficult or impossible to divide. Viewers do not consciously perceive an object that has not engaged attention. This is true as a general statement, but attention is not an all-or-none phenomenon. It is possible to be aware at different levels. In the cocktail party, for example, people may be dimly aware of the vague background buzz or may not be aware at all. However, humans seem capable of consciously attending only one information source at a time, at least to the level of meaning. Consciousness is a unitary stream.

4. Attention does not require consciousness.

People are only partially conscious of their attentional allocation. Some attention may be allocated without awareness to a task that is using capacity. This occurs in behaviors that have become automatic through overlearning, the learning of a skill well past the point of mastery. Much of normal driving occurs automatically and outside of awareness. Drivers have little or no conscious awareness of steering, using the foot pedals, etc. This can go so far as the common phenomenon of "highway hypnosis," where a motorist travels for an extended period with no conscious awareness or memory of having driven the car.

Another example occurs when a driver steers a curve. Without any awareness of having done so, drivers direct their attention to the tangent point on the curve. This fact could not be learned simply by asking drivers, who are unaware of it. Instead, researchers discovered the fact by measuring where drivers actually looked while they steered the curve. There is a major lesson in this example: people are very poor at introspecting about most of their behavior because it occurs without conscious awareness. This is why commonsense notions of human behavior are so often grossly wrong.

Lastly, the allocation of attention is largely automatic and occurs without awareness. As a result, it is not easily brought under conscious control. You may direct someone's attention by saying "watch the step," and temporarily cause a conscious allocation of attention to the step. However, there is a good chance that within a few minutes or even seconds, the memory trace will disappear and the next time the person will fail to notice the step. The same automatic factors that directed attention away from the step in the first instance have not changed.

Similarly, viewers are inattentionally blind to information that does not engage attention. I have seen many discussions of possible ways to make people less inattentionally blind. Most miss the point - there is no way to change human nature. The only way to reduce inattentional blindness is to change the information to make it more salient. Sensory enhancements, color, motion, etc. can help, but increasing cognitive conspicuity, relevance, expectancy, is probably more important. Certainly bicyclists should wear reflective vests at night, but it is also important that they are located where drivers expect to see them.

5. All tasks require some degree of attention, although the required amount may be small.

It is not surprising that operating the in-car navigation device or reading a billboard can distract a driver and cause an accident. Research suggests that a task as apparently undemanding as listening to the radio (Stutts, Reinfurt, Staplin, & Rodgman, 2001) can also cause distraction and increase accident likelihood. Even the most seemingly effortless tasks, like walking and maintaining an upright posture consume and require attention. For example, distraction is a major cause of accidents during staircase descent (Templer, 1992).

In sum, hard-wired, basic human attentional allocation strategy pays most notice to one information source, which then consumes our single stream of consciousness. We use other bits of attention to monitor automatic behavior in order to periodically check whether it is being performed properly. Think of overlearned, automatic behavior as a mental servant whom we have ordered to go off and perform a task for us. Periodically, we might use a small sliver of attention to check on progress and ensure that our servant is doing the job correctly. Unfortunately, this minimal supervision does not always detect problems in time to avert mishap. Moreover, when the main, consciously supervised task is demanding, there may not be enough attention even for supervising automatic tasks.

6. All tasks have an optimal level of attention.

Novel and complex tasks may suffer from lack of attention while highly overlearned and automatic tasks may suffer from too much attention. Directing attention to automatic behaviors can be highly disruptive. Every golfer, for example, knows the ploy of disrupting an opponent by commenting, "That's a wonderful pause you have at the top of your back swing." For more analysis on this topic, see the authoritative source, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating ( Potter, 1948).

Conclusion

These Laws convey the essential nature of attention. It is a limited resource that humans learn to allocate for each task. Our conscious attention focuses on a relatively small subset of the sensory input bombarding our senses at every moment. Human nature attempts to circumvent this limitation by adapting and by offloading subtasks to automatic behaviors which can run in parallel with minimal attentional control. This is what is generally meant when we say that someone has learned a skill (e. g., Dreyus & Dreyfus, 1986). Without this adaptation, we could not function.

The accusation that someone failed to pay attention can never literally be correct. People are always paying attention to something. The accusation really means that the person was not paying attention to some specific piece of sensory input. Since attention is limited, its allocation reflects a choice. However, as the Laws explain, it is usually not a conscious choice and viewers are not even aware exactly where their attention is allocated. For example, drivers steering a curve usually look at the tangent point. Very few, if any, drivers could tell you that this is where they are allocating attention when driving a curve.

However, attention is not always automatically and unconsciously controlled. The major exceptions happen when a person is in an information-seeking mode, which is likely to occur in a novel situation for which there is no established schema or script. Sometimes the task requires conscious attentional control because the world is too variable for a fixed schema, I .e., looking for a parking space at the mall. Similarly, people can also consciously alter the attentional deployment through conscious choice, i. e., deciding to text message while driving.

The lesson here, however, is that attentional filtering is generally a highly adaptive and a necessary aspect of human nature. Without the filtering away of irrelevant sensory input, humans would be overwhelmed and unable to focus attention on the relevant information needed to accomplish the task and to achieve the goal. As William James (1980) said, "without selective interest, experience is utter chaos."

References

Dreyfus, H. & Dreyus, S. (1986) Mind over Machine: the power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer. Oxford; Basil Blackwell

Green, et al. (2008). Forensic Vision: With Application To Highway Safety. Tucson.: Lawyers & Judges Publishing.

Hancock, P.., Mouloua, M., & Senders, J.. (2007). On the philosophical foundations of driving distraction and the distracted driver. In: Regan, M.A., Lee, J.D., and Young, K.L. (Eds.). Driver Distraction: Theory, Effects and Mitigation. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press..

James, W. (1890). Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

Potter, S. (1948). The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating. London: Henry Holt.

Reason, J., & K. Mycielska (1982). Absent-minded?: The Psychology of Mental Lapses and Every-day Errors. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Sinnett, Costa, S., Costa, A. & S. Soto-Faraco (2006). Manipulating inattentional blindness within. and across sensory modalities. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59, 1425-1442.

Stutts, J., Reinfurt, W., Staplin, L. & E. Rodgman (2001). The Role Of Driver Distraction In Traffic Crashes. New York: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Templer, J. (1992). The Staircase. Studies of Hazards, Falls And Safer Design. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press.

Other Topics
Personal Injury: Road Accidents
  • Is The Moth-Effect Real?
  • Human Error in Road Accidents
  • Reaction Time
  • Let's Get Real About Perception-Reaction Time
  • Vision in Older Drivers
  • Weather and Accidents: Rain & Fog
  • Accidents At Rail-Highway Crossings
  • Seeing Pedestrians At Night
  • Underride Accidents
  • Rear End Collision: Looming
  • Night Vision
  • Distracted Pedestrians
  • Failure To See
  • Perception-Reaction Time (PRT) Programs
  • Twilight (3.3 lux) As A visibility Criterion
  • Human Error And Fault Tolerance
  • Junk Science Meets Impaired Drivers
  • Personal Injury: Warnings & Product Defects
  • Warnings and Warning Labels
  • Warning Effectiveness Checklist
  • The Psychology of Warnings
  • Drugs, Adverse Effects & Warnings
  • Are Warnings Effective?
  • Human Error Vs. Design Error
  • Product Misuse And "Affordances"
  • Safety Hierarchy: Design Vs. Warning
  • Thinking Like A Human Factors Expert
  • Personal Injury: Other
  • Diving Accidents in Pools
  • Falls Down Steps
  • Medical Error
  • Computer & Medical Error
  • Criminal & Police
  • Errors in Eyewitness Identifications
  • Perceptual Error in Police Shootings
  • Eyewitness Memory Is Unreliable
  • Human Factors In Forensic Evidence
  • Intellectual Property
  • "Any Fool Can See The Trademarks Are Different"
  • Measuring Confusion For Intellectual Property
  • Color in Trademark and Tradedress Disputes
  • Forensic Human Factors
  • Determining Visibility
  • "Inattentional Blindness" & Conspicuity
  • Computer animation has perceptual limitations
  • Photographs vs. Reality
  • The Six Laws Of Attention
  • What is "inattention?"

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