Selective Attention

eyeWe never take in the world as it is.

Rather we are very selective about the things we notice and to which we give our attention.

Most of the world passes us by with little awareness or thought (for review of research on selective attention, see Fiske and Taylor).

Think for a moment about all of the insects that are in your immediate environment. Do you notice the spider in the corner of the room? Or the ant crawling across the floor? Probably not.

People pay attention to certain events while ignoring others.

And there are big differences in what individuals pay attention to. Have you ever spent an evening with entomologist (person who studies bugs)? If you have, you would quickly realize that insects are everywhere and that most people simply ignore them.

Or have you ever bought a new car only to suddenly discover it everywhere you go?

And business owners tell stories about changing the color of their building, only to have people, who have walked by their shop everyday for years, suddenly ask – "When did you open?"

Simply put, our take on reality is highly influenced by what we pay attention to. If you do not pay attention to insects (or have not recently purchased a new car), the world looks somewhat different to you.

And this happens in our romantic relationships as well.

If you are the type of person who is always looking for problems in your relationship, guess what you are going to find (see signs of cheating)?

And on the other hand, if you think that your husband or wife can never do any wrong, guess what you won’t see?

Are you a punctual person?
How many times does your husband or wife keep you waiting?

Are you a tidy person?
How often does your boyfriend or girlfriend leave their clothes on the floor?

Are you single, but want to be in a relationship?
Do you see happy couples everywhere you go?

Or consider this, some people are so fearful of rejection, called "rejection sensitivity," that they constantly see signs that their partner is going to leave them (e.g., "you are not paying attention to me; you didn’t return my phone call right away."). Ironically, people who are prone to "rejection sensitivity" can be so difficult to deal with that their partners are actually more likely to leave them (see Downey & Feldman and anxious attachment).

The examples could go on forever...

But, the important thing to realize that is that none of us see the world as it is. We ignore most of what happens around us. Our attention is limited to a very narrow range of events.