A few years ago I was in the mode of shopping for a new car: a MINI Cooper. Suddenly, I noticed how many MINI Coopers were sharing the road with me. This concept, known to researchers as “selective attention,” refers to our brains hardwired tendency to focus on one thing at a time. A fascinating article in the Wall St. Journal discusses this idea further by relating it to listening in on select conversations during cocktail parties or even talking on the cell phone vs. talking to a passenger while driving an automobile. Relatively few members of the population are effective at multitasking (2.5 percent) and even students who are using Facebook in school classes are not learning effectively–which bring consequences when it comes time for exams. For marketers and PR people, it means we rarely have someone’s undivided attention. What does it mean for you?


19 thoughts on “Selective Attention

  1. I found this article very interesting and very true! It reminds me of when I’m at a restaurant, and someone behind me is talking very loudly, but my friend right in front of me is also talking to me. Even if my focus is to listen to my friend, the person right behind me is the only one I can hear! So I often have to get closer to my friend, and really focus my brain on the words my friend is saying. I also identified with the article’s suggestion to “allocate blocks of time to specific tasks.” When I am trying to cram some reading in for school and only have a half an hour before my next class, my reading becomes so efficient! I always look back and wish I could have had more time. In contrast, if I just start to read on a Saturday afternoon with no time deadlines, I find myself getting up and moving around as I complete other tasks and chores I think of, thus not completing near enough reading for the time.

  2. The ‘cocktail party effect’ is something I never really considered before reading this article, but it is absolutely true. At the same time however, I am still sometimes convinced that I am part of the 2.5%. It is far too easy as a student to fall into the trap of telling yourself that you can get more done if you divide your attention between several different things when in reality this just is not true.

    1. I agree, this is not a topic that I have thought about however, after reading the article and giving it some thought I think that it is 100% true. At times I also think that I can multi-task although; when I try to listen to 2 conversations I am always missing some details about both of them. That said, I must say that I was surprised to find out that only 2.5% of the population is able to multi-task. I would have never guessed the number would be so low. Lastly, it is very important for public relation professionals and anyone else with an important message to communicate in an environment that is not too noisy and loud that way people will not be distracted and give the speaker their undivided attention.

      1. Yes, it is absolutely true. We have such busy lives that we try to do way too many things at once even if it is just a conversation or two. It’s becoming a very dangerous thing in our culture. Very interesting article.

  3. We were just discussing this very thing on Monday in a psychology class I’m taking. She even used the gorilla experiment as an example as well. This is really something that everyone does and we don’t even realize it. It explains why car accidents generally happen on our way home, because we’re autotuned to drive there not even really thinking. Sometimes you get home and wont even remember the drive. It’s actually kind of scary how dangerous it is to drive while on the cell phone but that makes sense as well. I read somewhere that driving while talking on a cell phone is right up there with driving drunk because your attention is not completely on the road like it should be. I think everyone should read this because I believe we all think we’re better multi-taskers than we really are.

    1. I totally agree with your point about driving home and not even realizing it! My mind is so preoccupied thinking about what happened at work that day, or what things I need to get done that night, that I’m just driving out of habit. It’s not until somebody swerves or brake lights that I really even recognize it. It also reminds me of when I’m reading something, but my mind is somewhere else thinking. I can “read” like 10 pages and not even realize or comprehend what was said. And to your point about talking on the cell phone, I have the same problem when trying to “multitask” by talking to a friend on the phone while shopping. I end up just walking aimlessly around and looking at things, but not really checking anything off on my list for what I came in for. I agree that it’s crazy only 2.5% — I would have thought higher originally too.

    2. I agree with Jessica, the idea of auto accidents happening on our way home is valid here because our brains turn out to be on auto-pilot. In regards to many of the other comments people have left, this really is a topic that I haven’t spent time thinking about but it couldn’t be more true! I’d like to think I’m a really good multi-tasker, but when it really comes down to it, I end up not really getting anything done when I try to do too much.

  4. it shows how important it is to have a ,message that cuts through all the noise. Using creative ways to get your public’s attention is more essential than ever; getting them where they are not expecting to hear the message is one way to get that.

    1. I feel getting the attention of the audience is the first step in sending a message, but if it does not stick in their memory, something of higher interest from another source will. Studying the psychology of what a target audience is motivated by will lead to ways that influence them to take part in your message. For example, whenever a t.v. screen is on, I tend to just stare at it, not even paying attention to the messages. Yes it got my attention, but it usually does not influence me to act, and feel in a certain way.

  5. We talk about this topic a lot in my consumer behavior class, how important it is to catch your audiences eye or ear in a matter of seconds. Even then it will probably not be enough to get their full attention but the important part comes when you try to leave a lasting memory or make a connection. Billboards are the perfect example, you’d never want to put up a billboard on a busy freeway that has a lot of words and details for a driver to read, but instead big pictures and bright colors– something that catches their eye. For marketing purposes, it often takes a consumer more than one time to gain some kind of feeling towards the ad or product,service or business.

  6. From a marketing perspective it means one thing: create better ads. By better I mean advertising that is more relative to the consumer and is delivered in a much more attention grabbing manner. With so many different entertainment devices consumers are occupied by marketers must now more than ever create more relevant and “to the point” ads in order to spark interest in the minds and deliver it in a reasonable time before the attention is shifted.

    1. Agreed. “Better” needs to be more relevant to what the customer needs and wants and needs to grab attention quickly and not take too much time to decipher.

  7. I agree with you Harpreet Dindral. Better ad means also having big ideas, but execute them in an intelligent way. For instance, stop thinking the audience is stupid: don’t tell, show; don’t reveal, imply. Sometimes a word is more explicit than too much writing – obviously the consumer has other things to do. A great ad also need to be charming, make people smile, laugh, in short it must provoke an emotion. And more importantly the image of the brand must be clear.

  8. It is difficult to stand out and unless you are a leader in an industry, your next best alternative option is to bench mark other’s ideas.
    Example: Apple came out with the first “real” touch phone with user absolutely control the devices just by one touch. Soon after, all other companies introduce similar function features devices to enter and capture the share of the touch screen mobile phone industry.
    I don’t mean we should copy the best and have no innovation, However, to become better, to stand out and capture others attention, its important to learn from the best, analyze whats good and what can be modify and how to imply appropriately depends on situation.

  9. Also, its important to know the targeted audiences.
    People choose to hear what they want to hear, to read what they interested in and choose what they like to believe in.

  10. Since there are a lot of things coming at us, the best way to reach a targeted consumer for marketers will be to have an effective ad to able to reach consumers. People see a lot of messages everyday. And with lots of messages coming at consumers, consumers chose the ones that they like. Also, most of the messages are not effective and weak and useless. Marketers needs to create ads that can be effective and relates to the target market.

  11. I am constantly being exposed to ads and brand communications just like any other person. But I cannot possible pay attention to all of these communications. I noticed how I only see an ad if I have a certain need. For example, I never paid attention to carpet cleaning coupons or any other house related services until I bought a house.
    I am very surprised that only 2.5 percent of the population is able to multi-task. I admit that I cannot multitask myself even though I always say women can multitask when arguing with my husband.

  12. I’ve wondered about this as well. I remember when I was pregnant and it seemed like everyone I knew was getting pregnant. Or when I was about to get married everyone I knew was talking about marriage as well. I was obsessed with shows related to pregnancy during my own and I loved a show (can’t think of the name now, probably cause I’m not getting married anymore) that was about picking out wedding dresses. I think its all about relating other people to yourself. As a marketer and a PR person I think this is a good thing because we want people to be drawn to what we’re promoting, but with the many things people have to deal with on a daily basis it can become overwhelming. This is where the problem lies. And the even bigger problem is that there isn’t much of a solution to it because all companies want to be promoted and then competition comes into play. I guess really trying to pay attention to what is capturing the target markets attention is a key role in developing advertisements and promotions.

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