What Is Selective Attention? Psychology Explains How It Works

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated July 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Multitasking is everywhere you look. People are often encouraged to do multiple things at once: watch television while they exercise, listen to music while they study, glance at their GPS while they drive. Over and over, we see instances in which we are encouraged to focus on multiple things at once, rather than focusing on a single task at hand. But is successful divided attention really possible? And if so, is it good to do?

Our ability to multi-task can be a gift and a curse

Attention and diversion

Parents often implore their children to "please listen" or “pay attention” while they are staring down at their phones. Teachers tap against the blackboard to garner the attention of students who are gazing out the window or doodling on notebook paper. In each of these situations, the assumption is that a person cannot focus their attention on two tasks at once, and one task must be sacrificed to see the other to completion. The human mind, however, can be far more complex than that.

The human brain is made up of millions of neurons and neural pathways, each of them designed to help you carry out everyday tasks, such as doing your job, brushing your teeth, or driving to work.

Attention is not as simplistic as only being able to focus on a single task at a time, but research suggests that the human brain also isn’t capable of fully committing to multiple tasks simultaneously. Instead, the mind possesses the ability to engage "selective attention," which allows people to divert attention and information processing resources to a certain task for a time before moving back into a state of greater awareness and a more engaged periphery.

What is selective attention?

Selective attention is defined by the American Psychological Association as “concentration on certain stimuli in the environment and not on others, enabling important stimuli to be distinguished from peripheral or incidental ones.”

When heavily concentrated on untangling a knot, for instance, the brain might engage selective attention and lose the ability to hear background noise or even noise as distinct as one's name. It also manifests as intense focus on some sounds over others, such as tuning in to a conversation at a busy event—this is also called the cocktail party effect. Selective attention is the mechanism responsible for allowing you to hear the cry of a child over the noise of running water or the clinking of dishes. 

The filter model posits that selective attention is an involuntary response in your brain that functions as a, well, filter; rather than being incapable of multitasking, the brain uses cues to identify which multitasking elements are most important and diverts its attention to those things. This filtration system tends to be fluid and move in and out of its tasks seamlessly. Your attention is constantly multitasking and taking in information, and your brain's selective attention mechanism filters which stimuli or tasks are the most critical at any given time.


Why is selective attention important?

Selective attention typically allows the human brain to function more efficiently. Just as a computer gets slower when numerous windows, tabs, and programs are open, the human brain might quickly and easily become overloaded without selective attention. Selective attention can function as a filter to keep the brain working optimally as it goes about its tasks.

The loss of this function can also be impactful; being easily diverted or experiencing difficulty concentrating may be a sign of a breakdown in the mind's ability to engage its selective attention mechanism. If the breakdown is temporary, you might not even notice the loss, but if your mind continues to struggle to use its selective attention abilities over a long period, work, school, and home lives can all reap negative consequences.

Selective attention can also serve as a mechanism to ensure important tasks are completed. Selective attention often allows your mind to prioritize your needs—which can be an invaluable tool in accomplishing goals, keeping you safe, and performing basic tasks. Selective attention might alert you to the terrified cry of a child while you are busy with a task at home, encouraging you to abandon your work in favor of checking on your child. Selective attention can be vital to both seemingly menial tasks and survival-based ones.

How does selective attention work?

Selective attention is thought to be (at least) a two-step process whereby the brain takes in all of the information it sees and hears and sends it to a filtering system, which then identifies which stimuli are most important. The human brain is filled with processes, each of them able to perform multiple tasks. Selective attention is an example of these synapses and neurons performing multiple functions and filtering the information the brain receives.

Certain parts of the brain are responsible for recognizing sight, patterns, and up-close experiences, while others are responsible for auditory signals. Still, others are responsible for "big picture" things and can take in more background noise. Each of these parts of the brain works in tandem to identify which aspects of the input your brain is receiving are important and which are acceptable to deprioritize.

Why study selective attention?

Selective attention continues to be an important field of study in neuroscience and psychology. Selective attention demonstrates an evolutionary biological response to external stimuli; if humans were to be easily overwhelmed by sights and sounds around them, they would probably not have been able to survive. Even without the threat of wildlife or starvation, selective attention can provide safety. Your attention can be diverted from the phone in the palm of your hand as the honk of a car horn alerts you to an imminent collision or a rustling in the grass can steal your attention from a conversation with a friend to the potential danger at your feet.

Selective attention is an adaptive tool that functions both as a source of survival and as a tool for completing basic everyday tasks. It is a system that can affect many aspects of human life, and its absence would likely significantly alter how human beings interact with the world around them and even how they interact with one another.

Mechanisms of selective attention

Selective attention is a multifaceted neurological system that is thought to have different functions. The first is more passive and allows the brain to focus on something when there are a lot of distractors in a state of high perceptual load. This might allow you to tune in on a conversation with a friend amid a loud party or hear the honk of a horn amid rush hour traffic, with vehicles flying by in both directions.

The second mechanism is more active and allows a person to tune out distractors during times of low perceptual load, when the person might normally have capacity to pay attention to them. 

Our ability to multi-task can be a gift and a curse

Selective attention and its role

Although selective attention is not often thoroughly evaluated by the average person, its effects are typically experienced in everyday life. Without the ability to selectively attend to external stimuli, human beings might be in a perpetual state of overwhelm and struggle to complete even the most basic task without ample light, utter silence, and a clear, clean workspace. With selective attention, people can function effectively in the face of countless sources of distraction and confusion.

There are various times in our lives when we may experience greater difficulty paying attention, such as when we are stressed, exhausted, or spread too thin. You may not have considered therapy as a useful resource, but licensed therapists may be helpful in teaching strategies for improving concentration or mitigating stressors. You can also schedule appointments at times when you know you are best suited to devote your attention to an engagement with a counselor. 

If you are too busy or hesitant to visit a therapy practice, you might consider trying online therapy, which has been shown to be as effective as in-office therapy. In one meta-analysis, online interventions were shown to have greater efficacy in improving the attention and social functions of adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), compared to adults on a wait list. 

In another context, there may be times when we need to divert our attention from negative thoughts. Internet- and mobile-based interventions have also shown effectiveness in helping people diagnosed with specific phobias to reduce their related symptoms.


Selective attention can be useful in numerous areas of life. The breakdown of the mind's selective attention system would likely lead to sensory difficulties with one's surroundings, as unimportant or overwhelming stimuli would not be suppressed, resulting in a constant state of overload of one's sensory systems. 

Whether you’re curious to learn more about selective attention itself or you’re interested in seeking guidance for how to better harness your attention toward a particular goal, you may benefit from talking to a licensed counselor. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed online therapist who has knowledge in attention and other cognitive functions like short-term memory. Take the first step in learning more about your ability to focus your attention by reaching out to a BetterHelp counselor today.

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