100 Things You Should Know About People: #98 — Attention Is Selective

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Filtering out stimuli — In many situations people get easily distracted. In fact, you can often grab people’s attention away from what they are focusing on. But it is also possible for people to pay attention to one thing and filter out all other stimuli. This is called selective attention.

Unconscious selective attention — You are walking down a path in the woods, thinking about an upcoming business trip you are taking, and you see a snake on the ground. You freeze and jump backwards. Your heart starts racing. You are ready to run away. But wait, it’s not a snake. It’s just a stick. You calm down and keep walking on the path. You noticed the stick, and even responded to it, in a largely unconscious way.My book,  Neuro Web Design: What makes them click, is all about unconscious mental processing. Some of the time you are aware of your conscious selective attention, for example, when you were reading the paragraph at the beginning of the chapter. But there is also a lot of selective attention that operates unconsciously.

What do you think? How good are you at selective attention?

100 Things You Should Know About People: #97 — People Filter Information

Have you ever met someone that has a long held belief that they just won’t change, no matter how much evidence you show them that their belief is not tenable? People seek out and pay attention to information and cues that confirm the beliefs that they have. They don’t seek out, in fact they ignore, or even discount, information that doesn’t support what they already believe.

Photo of military personnel in a control room
USS Vincennes

Useful strategy or bad idea? — Filtering is often a useful strategy, since it reduces the amount of information that you have to pay attention to at any one time. But sometimes filtering can lead to bad choices.

Shooting down a commercial jet — In 1988 the US Navy had a ship in the Persian gulf called the USS Vincennes. One day, while scanning the radar on the screen on the ship, the crew saw aircraft headed their way. They decided early on that the approaching aircraft was not a commercial airliner, but a hostile military plane. They shot down the plane, which did turn out to be a commercial airliner with 290 passengers and crew. Everyone died.

Many factors led to this erroneous conclusion — The situation was stressful , and the room was too dark. There were many unclear or ambiguous pieces of information that made it hard for the crew to understand what they were looking at on their screen. Most significant, however, in the incident, is what they chose to pay attention to and what they chose to ignore.

The crew filtered — Several crew members were convinced from the start that it was a hostile military plane, and from that point on they filtered all the information coming in. The crew had rehearsed the a training scenario many times on what to do when there is a hostile military plane in their air space. They ignored evidence that it was, in fact, a commercial plane, paid attention only to the information that led them to think it was a hostile military craft, and then proceeded to carry out the training scenario. All leading them to an incorrect resolution.

What do you think? Are you aware when you are filtering?