Some Theories on Attention

Posted on August 5, 2010


Author:  Sanjay Goel,


Attention to details is one of the most critical desirable trait of software developers.   Here are some theoretical perspectives on it.

The term ‘selective attention’ means that we usually focus our attention on one or a few tasks or events rather than on many. In 1958, Broadbent proposed his ‘filter theory’ which specified that we could only attend to one stimulus at a time.

In the 1960’s, Anne Treisman proposed her ‘attenuation theory’ as a modification to the filter theory. She suggested that rather than being fully blocked and discarded, unattended signals are weakened and some information is retained for future use. 

In the 1960’s, Deutsche and Deutsch, and also Norman, proposed their ‘late selection theory,’ taking a position that all messages are routinely processed for at least some aspects of meaning – the selection of message for response happens later. At low level of alertness, only very important messages captured attention, whereas at higher level of alertness, less important messages can be processed.

In 1978, Johnston and Heinz proposed a broader model in the form of ‘multimode theory,’ which viewed attention as a flexible system that allows selection of a message over others at several different points. Later selection requires more processing, capacity, and effort.

In 1973, Kahneman presented his model of attention viewing that the availability of mental resources is affected by overall level of arousal, or state of alertness.

In the 1980’s, Anne Treisman showed that perceiving individual features takes little effort or attention, whereas gluing features together into a coherent object requires more. As per the ‘capacity theory of comprehension’ proposed in 1991, differences in working memory capacity of individuals can account for qualitative and quantitative differences in comprehension.

In 2001, Conway et al showed that lower capacity of working memory results in lesser ability to focus. Research has shown that practice plays an enormous role in performance on simultaneous dual tasks but there are serious limitations on the number of things we can do simultaneously. Complex individual tasks make it even more difficult.


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3.   Theories that can help teachers/trainers/e-learning designers to think like educators, help students to improve their learning ability, and also help Software Developers in developing domain competence and readiness





Keywords: Software Engineering Education, Computing Education, Computer Science Education, Engineering Education, Information Technology Education, Information Systems Education, College Education, Higher Education, Professional Education


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