What Are the Different Types of Attention?

A person may need to use selective attention when travelling on a busy street.
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  • Written By: A.E. Freeman
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2014
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    Conjecture Corporation
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There are several types of attention that people use during everyday activities, such as when driving or cooking or in a classroom setting. Selective attention is one of the kinds of attention that requires a person to focus on one activity in the midst of many activities. Sustained attention is used when a person needs to focus on one event for a longer period of time. The other types of attention, divided attention and alternating attention, are needed when a person has to focus on many things at once.

A person may need to use selective attention when attending a large gathering or when out in a public area, such as a restaurant. In a room full of people, all carrying on multiple conversations, she will need to focus on the conversation or activity she is participating in, ignoring the other conversations going on around her. Selective attention may be used when a person is studying in a room that is noisy as well.

When a person is able to sit and focus on a single task for a long period of time, she is using sustained attention. Examples of sustained attention may include reading a book for hours or completing a task such as sweeping the floor. Some people find it difficult to maintain this type of attention and may become distracted easily. A key part of sustained attention is being able to re-focus on the task at hand after a distraction arises.

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The other types of attention are divided attention and alternating attention. When a person uses alternating attention, her brain is able to switch from one task to another. Usually, the tasks require the use of different areas of the brain. A common example of using alternating attention is reading and then making a recipe. Other examples of this kind of attention include singing and dancing or driving a vehicle. When driving, a person's attention shifts from accelerating, checking the road for obstacles, and signaling to make turns, among other tasks.

Alternating and divided attention are more complex types of attention than sustained and selective. Divided attention is also commonly referred to as multi-tasking. Someone may use divided attention when on the phone if she checks her mail at the same time. Unlike alternating attention, a person using divided attention does not change from one task to another completely different task. Instead, she attempts to perform them at the same time.

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Discuss this Article

healthy4life
Post 4

@Oceana – My husband has ADD, and he has trouble with both selective and sustained attention. Sustained is probably his most problematic, because he is so easily distracted.

He will start out doing a task, but he will be unable to finish it, because something else catches his thoughts or his attention. He jumps from task to task, never completing any of them because something else came up.

It is really hard for him to focus on one thing, so using selective attention is nearly impossible, at least for any length of time. If we are having a conversation in a public place, before I even finish a sentence, his eyes have wandered off to something else in the room, and he often interrupts me with a comment about what he is looking at.

It's hard on him, but it's hard on me, too. I never have his undivided attention, because he doesn't have any!

Oceana
Post 3

I would imagine that someone with attention deficit disorder would have trouble using several of these types of attention. I don't know anyone with the disorder, but from what I know about it, I believe that it would be hard for a person with this both to focus and to alternate his focus.

lighth0se33
Post 2

I've never had any trouble using alternating attention. I can look at a recipe, follow the instructions, and refer back to it over and over again without losing my train of thought.

I know people who have trouble doing this, though. Their minds just don't work the way that mine does.

I believe that each person probably is best at using a certain type of attention. I might not have the same attention abilities as my sister, but she might be better at divided attention than I am.

wavy58
Post 1

Some people are incapable of using divided attention while driving. I think this is what makes using a cell phone in a car so dangerous. There are drivers out there who just cannot talk and pay attention to the road at the same time, and they wind up using alternating attention, which is dangerous when it involves something other than doing actions that are necessary for driving.

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