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date: 23 January 2021

Abstract and Keywords

Research has highlighted a puzzling discrepancy in our selective attention performance: whereas in some circumstances we are able to be highly selective, at other times we can exhibit high levels of distraction. The load theory of attention and cognitive control provides an explanation for these contrasting observations, proposing that the extent to which people can focus their attention in the face of irrelevant distractions depends on the level and type of information load involved in their current task. According to the theory, the extent to which unattended visual information is perceived depends on the perceptual load of the attended task, such that increasing the level of perceptual load in the task decreases processing of task-irrelevant stimuli. Effective prioritization of task-relevant stimuli in the face of competition from irrelevant distractors is proposed to depend on the availability of executive control functions. Thus, loading executive control results in increased processing of irrelevant stimuli. This chapter presents converging research from a wide range of approaches in support of these proposals, as well as highlighting some of load theory’s wider influences in areas as diverse as emotion processing, developmental psychology, and the understanding of psychological disorders.

Keywords: selective attention, cognitive control, perceptual load, working memory load, distraction, visual perception, early and late selection debate, load theory

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