Attention and Behavior

Types of Attentional Focus

What Are the Four Types of Attentional Focus?

What Are the Four Types of Attentional Focus?

It is an established fact that the brain is a complex organ. As fascinating as it sounds, there are parts of it that we are yet to understand. What we do know is that the way we act, speak, learn, and behave says much about our personality. And our behavioral patterns can either be the same or different from one another. 

Cognitive psychology is the branch of science that seeks to understand one’s mental processes, such as language use, memory, perception, problem solving, reasoning, creativity, and attention. And according to cognitive psychology, there are significant aspects of human behavior that are highly dependent on our level of attention. It’s because of attention that we are able to focus, concentrate, or grasp our surroundings.

In this article, we will explain how attention and the types of attentional focus affect behavior and discuss the related factors that influence our ability to focus or concentrate.

Download our Four Types Of Attentional Focus infographic here.

What is Attention?


Attention involves selective sensory inputs as part of our conscious experience. It is our ability to process and focus while surrounded by competing stimuli and other information in our environment. Several studies have been done to examine how attention relates to one’s executive functioning, including how attention affects behavior. 

Attention helps in your awareness and consciousness, but it can also be selective (like focusing on a particular object). It allows an individual to tune out any less “relevant” information, perception, or even sensation from the environment. An individual’s level of attention is influenced by a number of factors.

John B. Watson was one of the first thinkers to prove that behavior changes occur due to the learning process, and learning is parallel to the attention of an individual. 

4 Types of Attentional Focus


The Four Types of Attentional Focus, Explained

Attention is a process, not a product. It helps you to stay sharp and allows you to focus on objects and your surroundings.  There are four types of attentional focus, which are:

  • Sustained – Also known as undivided attention, sustained attention is the type of focus needed when trying to accomplish major tasks that require consistency and increased mental activity. This includes studying for an exam, following a complicated recipe, or driving on an unfamiliar road. 
  • Divided – Not all activities require your full attention. A cook, for example, is used to doing several things at the same time—like slicing vegetables while frying a fish. Instead of giving one task all your focus, divided attention requires mental focus on a larger scale. Also known as multitasking, divided attention does not last as long as sustained attention.
  • Selective – If you are a bookworm, you must have experienced selective attention more than you realize. It’s often easy to get lost in the world of imagination while reading, and you tune out other things around you. This is selective attention. You ignore what’s going on in your surroundings while you are focusing on a single task.
  • Alternating – Individuals who are mentally flexible are able to shift their focus among different tasks at the same time. Unlike multitasking, their attention towards one task does not diminish or limit their performance in other tasks.

4 Types of Attentional Focus

What Influences the Types of Attentional Focus and How Attention Affects Behavior

Attention is a two-way process, and several factors act as a stimulus that piques or diminishes our interest or focus towards something. The factors that affect the types of attentional focus are stimulus-based, whether known or hidden, that trigger our cognitive function leading towards cognitive processing. When you understand what influences your ability to focus, you also gain a better grasp of how attention affects behavior.

The factors that influence attention and the types of attentional focus are classified into two major categories. 

Internal Factors

The determinants are personal, depending on your own cognitive resources (and brain function). It indicates the mental state of the perceiver. Some of the most common internal factors influencing the types of attentional focus are:

  • InterestsWe naturally focus on objects, subjects, or events that interest us. Take your Netflix or YouTube watch history, for example. Chances are, the shows you’ve watched and channels you’ve followed fall under similar genres. In our daily lives, we are more attentive towards the stimulus that we are most interested in.
  • Motive – Motive is an actual representation of our basic needs. However, in most cases, external factors play a significant role in shaping one’s motive behind their actions and behavior. Usually, our basic needs drive our focus towards satisfying thirst, hunger, fear, and other stimuli.
  • Mindset – The individuals’ readiness to act in certain situations determines his attention. For instance, if you are expecting to deliver a presentation in a week’s time, you are more likely to focus on your schedule and ensure you have enough time to prepare.
  • Attitudes and MoodsMood swings can easily shift one’s focus, and attitude often determines a person’s willingness and ability to concentrate.


External Factors

External factors influencing the types of attentional focus are based on stimuli from our surroundings. We have no control whatsoever over it. The internal factors mentioned above are sometimes directly dependent on external factors. Some of the common external factors that determine our attention are:

  • Nature of Stimulus – Every stimulus is different, so it’s understood that the degree of focus will vary with every one of them. Some individuals are more attracted to visual stimuli than auditory, primarily because they have stronger visual skills than hearing or listening. In a school setting, some students learn better with the help of visual representation, such as videos and photos. The more effective a stimulus is, the higher our focus level will be.
  • Size and Intensity of Stimulus – The bigger, brighter, and louder a stimuli is, the more it commands our attention. Just like how the scent of freshly baked cookies can distract you from studying.
  • Repetition of Stimulus – Do you remember the popular classical conditioning experiment by Pavlov? The repetition of giving meat after a bell secured the dog’s attention. In the beginning, the dog ignored the stimulus, but after several repetitions, it captured its attention.
  • Movement of StimulusWas that a large-sized pizza the waiter served on the next table? If you are hungry and waiting for the server to take your order, that pizza on the other table would definitely catch your eye. A moving stimulus catches attention quicker. Sure, the internal factor plays its part here. In this case, you were feeling hungry, so the passing orders draw your focus. But if you were enjoying your meal, you would not give a second thought to what’s being placed on the next table.


What are the Types of Attentional Focus


How Do We Improve Attention?

It is crucial for individuals, especially parents, to understand that developing attention and how the types of attentional focus impact behavior may not always be the easiest for a child to do. To improve one’s focus, a parent, teacher, or guardian must take into consideration the internal and external factors that can help or hinder a student.

When improving one’s attention, one should treat the mind like a muscle. If you want to be stronger and develop your physical muscles, you do so by exercising and working out. In contrast, a sedentary lifestyle and lack of activity can weaken and lead to atrophy. The same is true for your brain. Improving certain aspects of your mental process requires practice and exercises to help you adapt new ways of thinking and behavior, while the opposite causes your mental skills to deteriorate.

It’s also important to remember that just like the muscles in your body, your mind will have a limited amount of strength. And when you subject both to rigorous exercise and activities, they will need time to relax and recover. When you force yourself to focus and continue working beyond your mind’s present capacity, it leads you to become even less productive and make tasks more difficult. This is why it’s important to incorporate meditation in your daily activities.

Other steps you can take to improve and strengthen attention include:

  1. Creating a to-do list
  2. Practicing mindfulness
  3. Exercise
  4. Nurturing curiosity
  5. Active listening
  6. Meditation
  7. Healthy diet
  8. Getting enough sleep
  9. Having downtime to relax
  10. Creating organizational systems to help with time management
  11. Improving self-care
  12. Reducing distractions
  13. Spending time outdoors (vitamin D)


At Themba Tutors, improving focus and helping individuals understand how attention and the types of attentional focus affect behavior are part of the main goals of our our learning specialists, academic tutors, and coaches. We help students of all ages and adults by demonstrating ways and strategies to help strengthen their executive functioning skills, including focus, time management, organization, and problem solving. This allows them to perform better in school, at home, and at work as well as accomplish household, career, and personal tasks more efficiently.

We can help students understand the types of attentional focus and how to improve attention skills!
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Meet Craig Selinger, the passionate owner behind Themba Tutors, a renowned practice specializing in executive function coaching and tutoring. Together with his team of multidisciplinary professionals, they bring their extensive knowledge to numerous locations: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Bronx, Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut, as well as offering remote services. As a licensed speech-language pathologist in the state of NY, executive functioning coach, and educational specialist with an impressive track record spanning over two decades, Craig has professionally assisted thousands of families. Craig's proficiency encompasses a wide spectrum of areas, including language-related learning challenges such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening. He is also well-versed in executive functioning, ADHD/ADD, and various learning disabilities. What truly distinguishes Craig and his team is their unwavering commitment to delivering comprehensive support. By actively collaborating with the most esteemed professionals within the NYC metropolitan region – from neuropsychologists to mental health therapists and allied health experts – they create a network of expertise.
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