By ROBERT S. WOODWORTH, Ph.D.
“Attention! ” shouts the officer as a preliminary to some more specific command, and the athletic starter calls out ” Ready! ” for the same purpose.
Both commands are designed to put the hearer in an attitude of readiness for what is coming next. They put a stop to miscellaneous doings and clear the way for the specific reaction that is next to be called for. They nullify the effect of miscellaneous stimuli that are always competing for the hearer’s attention, and make him responsive only to stimuli coming from the officer. They make the hearer clearly conscious of the officer.
They arouse in the hearer a condition of keen alertness that cannot be maintained for more than a few seconds unless some further command comes from the officer.
In all these ways ” attention” in the military sense, or “readiness ” in the athletic sense, affords a good picture of the psychology of attention. Attention is preparatory, selective, mobile, highly conscious.
To attend to a thing is to be keenly conscious of that thing, it is to respond to that thing and disregard other things, and it is to expect something more from that thing.
Attention is, in a word, exploratory. To attend is to explore, or to start to explore. Primitive attention amounts to the same as the instinct of exploration. Its natural stimulus is anything novel or sudden, its ” emotional state” is curiosity or expectancy, and its instinctive reaction consists of exploratory movements. Its inherent impulse is to explore, examine, or await. Attention belongs fundamentally among the native forms of behavior.
The child does not have to learn to attend, though he must learn to attend to many things that do not naturally get his attention. Some stimuli naturally attract attention, and others attract attention only because of previous experience and training.
In considering the whole subject of attention, then, we shall in part be dealing with native responses, and in part with responses that are acquired. But the great laws of attention, which will come to light in the course of the chapter, are at the same time general laws of reaction, and belong under the head of native characteristics.
THE STIMULUS, OR WHAT ATTRACTS ATTENTION
We can attend to anything whatever, but are more likely to attend to some things than to others.
As stimuli for attention, some objects are much more effective than others, and the question is, in what way one object has the advantage over another. There are several ways, several ” factors of advantage “, we may call them.
Change is the greatest factor of advantage. A steady noise ceases after a while to be noticed, but let it change in any respect and immediately it arrests attention.
The ticking of the clock is a good example: as long as it keeps uniformly on, it is unnoticed, but if it should suddenly beat faster or louder or in a different key, or even if it should stop altogether, it would ” wake us up ” with a start.
The change in the stimulus must not be too gradual if it is to be effective, it must have a certain degree of suddenness. It may be a change in intensity, a becoming suddenly stronger or weaker; or it may be change in quality, as in tone, or color, or odor; or it may be a change in position, a movement in space.
When one who is holding our arm gives it a sudden squeeze to attract our attention, that is a change of intensity; when we step from the bank into the water, the sudden change from warmth to cold, that gets our attention without fail, is a change of quality; and something crawling on the skin attracts attention by virtue of its motion. Anything moving in the field of view is also an unfailing stimulus to attention.
Strength or high intensity of a stimulus, is another important factor of advantage. Other things being equal, a strong stimulus will attract attention before a weak one. A loud noise has the advantage over a low murmur, and a bright flash of light over a faint twinkle.
In the case of visible objects, size has about the same effect as intensity. The large features of the landscape are noticed before the little details. The advertiser uses large type, and pays for big space in the newspaper, in the effort to attract the attention of the reader.
Another similar factor is repetition. Cover a billboard with several copies of the same picture, and it attracts more attention than a single one of the pictures would. Repeat a ” motive ” in the decoration of a building, and it is more likely to be noticed. Repeat a cry or call several times, and after a while it may be noticed, though not at first. The ” summation of stimuli ” has much the same effect as increasing the intensity of a single stimulus.
If, however, a stimulus is repeated or continued for a long time, it will probably cease to hold attention, because of its monotony, or, in other words, because it lacks the element of change.
Striking quality is an advantage, quite apart from the matter of intensity. Saturated colors, though no stronger in intensity of light than pale colors, are stronger stimuli for attention.
High notes are more striking than low. Itch, tickle and pain get attention in preference to smooth touch. ” Striking ” cannot be defined in physical terms, but simply refers to the fact that some kinds of stimulus get attention better than others.
Definite form has the advantage over what is vague. A small, sharply defined object, that stands out from its background, attracts the eye more than a broad, indefinite expanse of light such as the sky.
In the realm of sound, ” form” is represented by rhythm or tune, and by other definite sequences of sound, such as occur in the jingles that catch the little child’s ear.
The factors of advantage so far mentioned are native, and a stimulus possessing one or more of them is a natural attention-stimulus. But the individual also learns what is worth noticing, and what is not, and thus forms habits of attention, as well as habits of inattention.
The automobile driver forms the habit of attending to the sound of his motor, the botanist forms the habit of noticing such inconspicuous objects as the lichens on the tree trunks. On the other hand, any one forms the habit of not noticing repeated stimuli that have no importance for him.
Move into a house next the railroad, and at first you notice every train that passes; even at night you awake with a start, dreaming that some monster is pursuing you; but after a few days the trains disturb you very little, night or day. The general rule covering attention habits is this: anything that you have to work with, or like to play with, acquires the power to attract your attention, while anything that you do nothing with loses whatever hold on your attention it may have possessed by virtue of its intensity, quality, etc.
Besides these permanent habits of attention, there are temporary adjustments determined by the momentary interest or desire.
Stimuli relevant to the momentary interest have an unwonted hold upon attention, while things out of line with this interest may escape attention altogether, even though the same things would ordinarily be noticed.
What you shall notice in the store window is governed by what you are looking for as much as by the prominence of the object in the total display. When you are angry with a person, you notice bad points about him that you usually overlook, and any aroused desire adjusts or ” sets ” attention in a similar way.
The desire or interest of the moment facilitates attention to certain stimuli and inhibits attention to others, and is thus an important factor of advantage. The interest of the moment is often represented by a question. Ask yourself what spots of red there are in the field of view, and immediately various red spots jump out and strike the eye; ask yourself what pressure sensations you are getting from the skin, and immediately several obtrude themselves.
A question sets attention towards whatever may furnish an answer. To sum up, we may say that three general factors of advantage determine the power of any stimulus to attract attention. There is the native factor, consisting of change, intensity, striking quality, and definite form; there is the factor of habit, dependent on past experience; and there is the factor of present interest and desire.
Psychology A Study Of Mental Life
by Robert S. Woodworth