2.3 Attention

Our perceptions are heavily influenced by our attention (Goldstein, 2019). As you learned in the reading “Perceptions and stories” by Heen and Stone (2006) in the previous topic, what we pay attention to in each situation will influence how we perceive a situation. In this sense, attention is important to understand people’s conflict experiences, and we will have a closer look at the process of attention in this topic.

Attention is our ability to focus on a specific stimulus. There are many types of attention. See the images below for how various types of attention may be distinguished.

In this chapter, we will look in some detail at selective and divided attention. More specifically, we will consider some phenomena of attention that affect perception and thereby people’s experiences.

Figure 2.3.1. Different kinds of attention by K. Perry used under CC BY 4.0 licence

Selective Attention

Consider selective attention as a “filter”. We constantly act on incoming information – we let some in for further processing and keep some out. Heen and Stone (2006) described how Eric and Fran had access to some common information (what was said in a work meeting that they both attended, etc.) and how they each paid attention to different data from this common pool of information. The authors briefly describe the “user illusion” phenomenon, pointing out that “we think we see everything around us, but in fact take in a very small slice of the available information” (p. 344). As discussed in the conflict scenario with Fran and Eric, we can see how selective attention can influence our perception, our conflict story, and our conflict experience overall.

Cocktail Party Effect

Within selective attention, there is a phenomenon called the “cocktail party effect”. Think of the last time you were at a party. You hear many people chatting, glasses clinking, perhaps there is some music playing, the sound of people cooking food – lots to attend to. But you can easily converse with another person while blocking out all the other noise. Similarly, if someone were to call your name or say another distinctive message like “Fire!” you could easily block out all other noise to attend to that message. This is the cocktail party effect.

We selectively attend due to our limited cognitive capacity. Our ability to ignore a stimulus is a function of the cognitive load of the task we are trying to complete and depends on how powerful the task-relevant stimuli is. A great example of a situation where task-relevant stimuli are difficult to ignore is the Stroop task.


If you want to complete the task to experience conflicting cognitions yourself, please see the Interactive Stroop Effect Experiment.

To learn more about the Stroop effect and the brain areas involved in the cognitions involved in situations simulated by the Stroop task, please watch: The Stroop Task: The Psych Test You Cannot Beat [7:59].

Divided Attention

When we purposely distribute our attention to more than one thing at one time – this is divided attention. For example, we can have a conversation while driving our car or listen to music while working. Note that our capacity to attend to different activities at once are limited, which we will discuss in more detail in the next topic on memory (2.4).

Inattentional Blindness

By now, you would agree that attention is essential and without it, we wouldn’t be able to perceive stimuli.

Before reading on, please now watch the video [1:22]:

One way to demonstrate the importance of attention for our perception is through inattentional blindness. This is our failure to notice a fully visible and obvious stimulus because our attention was engaged with another task, event, or object. The video that you have just watched is a great example of inattention blindness created by Simons and Chabris (1999). After watching the video, almost 50% of people failed to report seeing the ‘event’ even though it was clearly visible. Experiments like this demonstrate how when we attend to one event or stimuli, we may overlook another, even when it’s right in front of us.


To learn more about how inattentional blindness works, please check out this video from Nova, ‘Why You Miss Big Changes Right Before Your Eyes’.

Reflection Activity

You may now wish to spend 10 minutes to consider how what you have just learned about attention may help you understand and/or support people in conflict. For example, you might want to consider how the various phenomena of attention may relate to conflict. These phenomena include selective attention, the cocktail party effect, divided attention and inattentional blindness.



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Neuroscience, Psychology and Conflict Management Copyright © 2024 by Judith Rafferty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.