How To Get Attention
Attention is the attitude or "set" that is the major influence on perception. The importance of attention is shown by the fact that people perceive the world around them in a selective fashion. They do not "see" and "hear" everything that is within the range of their sight and hearing. A driver may say after an accident, "I never saw the other car", even though the car was in his field of vision.
Attention involves the whole body. Watching for something requires turning the head and focusing the eyes, and nerves and muscles in the rest of the body are involved as well. Psychologists have been able to detect small muscle movements and changes in blood pressure and nerve impulses in people who are apparently sitting still but are in a state of alertness. The central nervous system is, of course, involved in the process of directing attention. This fact has been demonstrated with hypnotized subjects, who can be instructed to respond to certain stimuli and ignore others.
Factors in Attention
A number of factors influence attention, but the most important is interest or motivation. This factor can be demonstrated experimentally with a device called a tachistoscope, which presents pictures for very brief intervals. When subjects are given brief views of pictures, they usually recall few details, though they may have an impression of size or color. If, however, they are told to look for certain details, they are much more successful in detecting and reporting them.
The influence of this kind of preparatory set is often illustrated in everyday life. A mother whose child is playing in the street will hear screeching brakes and tires, while a guest in the same room may not notice a thing. A student who is attentive in class usually hears and remembers more than a student whose interest is focused elsewhere. The alert student may be motivated by enthusiasm for the subject or by a desire to win the reward of a good grade. In any case, he is giving voluntary attention, and this helps him learn. In general, anything that arouses an expectant attitude makes a person attentive.
Although interest is basic to attention, a number of objective factors are also important in making objects and events stand out. Large size, unusual shape, bright color, and changing position are effective, and advertisers make use of these factors in signs and displays. Loud sounds can be used to attract involuntary attention.
Repetition can be used to make people attend to a message, as when advertisers repeat a television commercial or display hundreds of posters on the streets. However, there is a point of diminishing effect in repeating a stimulus. A message that is heard repeatedly over days and weeks may become monotonous; it may then move out of the focus of attention and become part of the background noise of the environment.
Novelty is useful in arousing attention. Hence teachers try to pose challenging questions, and advertisers search for fresh approaches in pictures and copy. Contrast will often compel attention. As a familiar example, a green lawn would be highly noticeable in an arid country but would not seem remarkable in England or New England. Yet interest may be the most influential factor. A salesman for lawnmowers is likely to notice every lawn he passes.