Attention is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one thing in our environment while ignoring other distractions. Attention is a limited resource. This means that your brain can only devote attention to a limited number of stimuli (things in the environment). Despite what you may believe, we are terrible multi-taskers. Research shows that when multitasking, people make more mistakes or perform their tasks more slowly. Each task increases cognitive load (the amount of information our brain has to process) and our attention must be divided among all of the tasks to perform them. This is why it takes more time to finish something when we are multitasking.
Many aspects of attention have been studied in the field of psychology. In some respects, we define different types of attention by the nature of the task used to study it. For example, a crucial issue in World War II was how long an individual could remain highly alert and accurate while watching a radar screen for enemy planes, and this problem led psychologists to study how attention works under such conditions. Research results found that when watching for a rare event, it is easy to allow concentration to lag. This a continues to be a challenge today for TSA agents, charged with looking at images of the contents of your carry-on luggage in search of knives, guns, or shampoo bottles larger than 3 oz.
Culture can also influence and shape how we attend to the world around us. Masuda and Nisbett (2001) asked American and Japanese students to describe what they saw in images like the one shown below. They found that while both groups talked about the most salient objects (the fish, which were brightly colored and swimming around), the Japanese students also tended to talk and remember more about the images in the background (they remembered the frog and the plants as well as the fish).
North Americans and Western Europeans in these types of studies were more likely to pay attention to salient and central parts of the pictures, while Japanese, Chinese, and South Koreans were more likely to consider the context as a whole. The researchers described this as holistic perception and analytic perception.
Holistic Perception: A pattern or perception characterized by processing information as a whole. This pattern makes it more likely to pay attention to relationships among all elements. Holistic perception promotes holistic cognition: a tendency to understand the gist, the big idea, or the general meaning. Eastern medicine is traditionally holistic; it emphasizes health in general terms as the result of the connection and balance between mind, body, and spirit.
Analytic Perception: A pattern of perception characterized by processing information as a sum of the parts. Analytic perception promotes analytic thinking: a tendency to understand the parts and details of a system. This pattern makes it more likely to pay attention and remember salient, central, and individual elements. Western medicine is traditionally analytic; it emphasizes specialized subdisciplines and it focuses on individual symptoms and body parts.
How we attend and perceive our world has implications for how we evaluate and explain the world around us, including the actions of others. We will talk more about this concept, known as attributions, later in the chapter.