Attention and Perception
Before information can be used in a meaningful way, it must first be attended to within the perceiver’s environment. Once information is attended to, how it is interpreted by the individual based on current goals, drives, and motives determines how it is perceived. Humans have an automatic tendency to focus their cognitive resources on stimuli that convey messages of potential danger (threat to survival) or mate prosperity (reproductive success). However, how these stimuli are perceived must be examined in the context of its evolutionary function in order to understand their adaptive relevance to the human cognitive system.
The ability to efficiently attend to information within one’s environment is a vital cognitive skill that allows an organism to appropriately interact with the world. However, not all information (particularly fitness-enhancing information) is processed equivalently nor do all varieties of stimuli garnish the same attentional response (see Öhman et al. 2012 for a review). Attention can be understood as the prioritizing of a select set of information within one’s environment, as deemed pertinent by the individual based on one’s goals, deemed importance, salience, and past practices (Jiang and Sisk 2019). It allows an individual to focus their cognitive resources on a subset of all available information. From an evolutionary perspective, the types of details that become automatically and most readily directed by this attentional focus are thought to be those most relevant to the survival and success of the individual’s genetic longevity.
Furthermore, information in the environment can be interpreted from a variety of standpoints based on the context of interaction. This susceptibility of stimuli to be perceived in different fashions can be understood as a crucial adaptation of human cognition. The research discussed in this entry will highlight the various ways in which human attention and perception influence each other and demonstrate an attunement toward evolutionarily relevant problems within the modern era.
Capture by Predatory Threat
Threats to the physical health of primates have existed in a variety of capacities causing them to develop methods of protection. For example, a quick and accurate detection of potential predators and harmful objects would facilitate one’s ability to procure a safe escape or position of self-defense. In modern society, the occurrence of human predation (e.g., attacks from tigers and pythons) in many cases is not as eminent as it was for our Paleolithic ancestors. However, the residual adaptations of our cognitive system to respond to such potential threats remain present and are activated through heightened attention toward dangerous stimuli allowing for an assessment of the level of imminent threat. To test this assertion, Yorzinski et al. (2014) recorded the eye movements of individuals as they viewed evolutionarily dangerous (snakes, lions) and benign (lizards, impalas) animals. Photo arrays were created so that there was one dangerous animal intermixed with seven non-dangerous animals, as well as the reverse. Participants viewed the arrays, one at a time, with the task of locating the unique photo (i.e., target) as quickly as possible. Regardless whether the photos were presented in vibrant, full color or in reduced quality, black-and-white format, the visual scan paths (eye movements) illustrated a clear pattern of attentional capture by the dangerous animal photos. When a dangerous animal was the target, participants were faster at locating the image than when a non-dangerous animal was the target. Conversely, when dangerous animals were the to-be-ignored photos, participants demonstrated difficulty in disengaging from these images. The authors concluded that the presence of evolutionarily threatening predators both grabs and maintains human attention due to the innate features of these animals, even when task-irrelevant (see Calvillo and Hawkins 2016 [on animacy effects] and Shabbir et al. 2012 [on pattern repetition] for additional factors in attentional superiority toward predators).
This attentional priority for evolutionarily dangerous creatures has also been found to extend into unconscious perception. Because humans are not naturally equipped with physiological resistance to counteract dangers such as venom and suffocation, having the ability to quickly detect animals that have the possibility of being a threat is a lifesaving adaptation of human visual cognition. Using an inattentional blindness paradigm that allows for the examination of the types of information that are given attentional superiority, New and German (2015) tested participants’ ability to detect threatening images presented unexpectedly. While completing a computer task requiring participants to focus on the center of the screen, an image appeared in the corner of the screen that resembled either an evolutionarily threatening (spider) or a non-threatening shape (housefly, hypodermic needle). When probed to identify the surprise image, participants were most accurate in detecting and indicating the location of the image when it resembled a spider, as compared to an evolutionarily non-threatening shape. Similar results indicating early, automatic, and sustained attentional capture by fear-inducing images have also been shown using event-related potential (brain wave recordings) techniques (Leutgeb et al. 2015).
The results from New and German (2015) suggest attention is not equally allocated to all types of threatening information, but rather natural and evolutionarily based dangers produce a bias for immediate processing. The authors concluded that the human visual system is designed with a preparedness toward detecting information that has been deemed evolutionarily important, regardless of explicit awareness. However, other researchers have suggested that all threat cues, both modern and historically relevant, are efficient at automatically capturing attention. Spatial attention (i.e., focus in a visual scene) is facilitated by the presence of threatening images, particularly when the threat is directed toward the self (e.g., a gun pointed toward the observer; Carlson et al. 2009). Notably, this eliciting can occur even when conscious perception of the threat is diminished. Objects and creatures that can pose a threat to one’s survival are processed with a particular advantage to allow for rapid detection, even in the absence of observer perceptual awareness. It appears that humans have an automatic drive to detect and gather information about potential dangers within their visual field.
Attunement Toward Fearful Messages from Others
Besides the viewing of natural predators, threat can be detected through observing the facial and emotional expressions of others. Emotion-evoking stimuli have been shown to be effective at capturing attention by instilling a particular value, such as a fearful face indicating a threat alert. This value can, in return, convey a message of urgency toward action to increase survival likelihood when it is of a threatening nature (see Öhman et al. 2012). A threatening message that can be quickly conveyed with urgency allows for a greater chance that the receiver can distance themselves from danger.
While assessing the role emotional faces play in facilitating risk avoidance, Becker et al. (2014) demonstrated that memory is prioritized toward remembering and detecting threatening faces. Participants were tasked with memorizing photos of male and female faces, with half of each gender making a slightly angry facial expression. When presented with a series of faces that included all of the studied faces as well as additional unstudied faces, participants were more efficient at identifying the faces that had been a part of the original study set if they were males displaying an angry facial expression, regardless of participant gender (Experiment 1) and outgroup status (race; Experiment 2). In line with evolutionary accounts of men holding more aggressive social roles than women, male participants displayed faster response times to the threatening male faces than female participants indicating men have a particularly heightened vigilance for identifying signs of physical threats in other men.
The authors interpreted this pattern of results to indicate robust support for automatic sensitivity toward angry faces, particularly for men with social goals relevant to identifying the motive of potential mate stealing and physically threatening individuals (also see Sulikowski and Burke 2014 for heightened attention to objects related to social roles). This capturing of attention by valenced faces has also been found in young children, indicating that the significance of an emotional message is understood early on and has a genetic component in allocating spatial attention (Elam et al. 2010). Once a threatening face has been detected, it remains in a position of privilege in memory. This readiness to encode fear-inducing messages helps to facilitate identification of information that can be used to garner the safety level of a face when it is encountered at a later point. Thus, the heightened awareness of potentially dangerous stimuli not only enhances the immediate survival of the organism but also its future success.
Besides visual cues, auditory indications of distress and danger are effective at automatically directing attention. Vocalization patterns can be used to convey messages to others about one’s internal state. For example, whines, particularly when used by infants toward caregivers, tend to indicate a sense of helplessness through an increased pitch, slowed speech production, and amplified loudness (Chang and Thompson 2010). These special acoustic characteristics have been shown to capture diverted attention in adults and increase attentiveness toward the source of the whines. Ultimately, this attention-grabbing vocalization has the possibility to naturally elicit the help the individual needs from others.
As in the case of fear-filled messages, throughout the literature emotion has repeatedly been shown to play a key role in directing attention, influencing memory, and, consequently, manipulating conscious perception (Pessoa 2005). However, results from these studies must be interpreted within their individual contexts. Emotion-inducing information is generally processed in a rapid manner that overrides attention to simultaneously ongoing processes so that the message conveyed by the stimuli is prioritized (e.g., Elam et al. 2010). Under these circumstances, attention is diverted from its intended focus thereby adding to the pressures of attentional load capacity. When unattended information of an emotional nature demands attention, an emotion processing advantage is demonstrated. Therefore, individuals with varying sizes of attentional reservoirs may not display the same degree of responding to emotional information. In addition, individual differences in sensitivity to label a stimulus as fearful or threatening (Pessoa 2005), past experiences (Jiang and Sisk 2019), and contextual framing of a situation (Wang 1996) could influence how attention is directed. For example, if an angry face is perceived as a neutral expression, a threat response may not be activated for that individual and no enhanced attempts at self-preservation will occur. In other words, visual and verbal messages intending to convey a sense of urgency by directing attention toward a threat identified by one individual may not be perceived in the same fear-induced fashion by the receiver.
Relationship Maintenance and Procurement
An understanding of the world is not based solely on the direct information that is picked up by one’s sensory organs. Rather, the types of information that make it into one’s attentional focus and how that information is interpreted can lead to various outcomes of perception (Carrasco and Barbot 2019). The evolutionarily relevant goals of finding viable mates and proper survival resources have been shown to be supremely influential in dictating the type of stimuli one will notice in a scene and how those stimuli will be evaluated.
One such example of how the object of an individual’s attention can influence their perceptual experience of the world is found in the misattribution of ambiguous noises and sights to an illogical source that aligns with the object of one’s attention. White and Fessler (2013) looked at this phenomenon in bereaved pet owners. Long-term pet owners who recently (within the past 2 years) lost a cat or a dog were surveyed for their frequency of falsely attributing sounds (e.g., another dog barking), visualizations (e.g., mistaking another pet as one’s own), and compulsions (e.g., urge to look for or feed the pet) to the presence of their late pet. Grieving individuals who most frequently viewed the deceased pet’s photos (taken while alive) were more likely to commit instances of false pet recognition, and this occurrence decreased as the time elapsed since the loss increased. Forming an emotional relationship requires a significant amount of time and effort that, if successful, can have a benefit to fitness or, if unsuccessful, be resource depleting. Following the death of a person or pet, the surviving party may feel reluctant to abandon the expensive investment and continue to search for cues that the lost agent remains a viable relationship partner. The authors suggest that misattributing ambiguous sensory information during the grieving process may serve to direct the bereaved’s attention toward definitive evidence as to the possibility of rectifying the lost relationship bond. Namely, when attention is focused on a lost pet via frequently viewing photographs, the cognitive systems are readied to perceive ambiguous stimuli in a way that aligns with the desire to maintain the connection.
Due to the intense benefits associated with creating bonds, the desire to do so encompasses a large portion of the evolutionary literature. From an evolutionary perspective, there is an innate drive in humans to identify and secure viable mates so as to prolong and pass on one’s genes to the next generation. For men, this revolves around the desire to find healthy, fertile females who can successfully carry offspring. For females, the search for a strong, resourceful protector and provider to assist in child-rearing is at the forefront. When individuals’ motivations related to the likelihood of mating success are manipulated, visual attention is also influenced (Chang and Lu 2012). Specifically, while viewing images of the opposite sex, men tend to focus their attention on a female’s waist/hip area (indicative of fertility status) when motivated by a short-term relationship potential but focus on the face area (provides age and nurturing capacity information) when faced with long-term relationship motives. However, when information pertaining to the social status and resource acquiring success is present, both males and females tend to demonstrate early attentional persuasion toward attractive men (DeWall and Maner 2008). This attention toward males with a perception of a high social status aligns with females’ adaptive preparedness to identifying resource-rich mates and males attending to threats of potential mates. The shift in visual attention based on one’s reproductive goals supports the notion that perceptual attention has evolved in a sex-specific manner.
Attention to Nutritional Resources
How information pertaining to nutritional needs of an individual is perceived can also be influenced by where attention is directed. Repeated exposure to high-calorie food options has been linked with increases in observer desire to obtain and consume unhealthy nutrient options and poor body health (Alblas et al. 2018). In particular, individuals who do not have practiced self-regulation skills and also maintain a mentality of food restriction (i.e., chronic dieting) are easily primed to acknowledge the presence of food-related information. Having food-related thoughts readily in mind leads to an increased ease of perception for relevant environmental cues. This preparedness to orient toward satiating, high-calorie food has also been demonstrated by individuals in a state of hunger (Sänger 2019) as well as those experiencing stress (a response to perceived threat; Klatzkin et al. 2019). While rapid detection and ingestion of food can be a valuable asset for individuals with a deficit of nutrition availability, such as our hunting-gathering ancestors, it can also be dangerous to the physical health of those living in a resource-enriched modern environment. Yet, an enhanced attentional and perceptual sensitivity to this necessary resource remains a crux of our cognitive processing system. The ability to quickly detect food sources as they become available in the environment allows for the option to encode and obtain or leave the food item, depending on one’s most relevant goals and the amount of additional cognitive resources available (e.g., working memory capacity, self-regulation, attentional focus).
Food selection quality has also been shown to be influenced by a diner’s mating goals. When dining in a public setting, individuals may manage their personal appearance through the nutritional quality of meal selection. In a recent study, Baker et al. (2019) asked a large sample of individuals to imagine themselves on a dinner outing accompanied by a new classmate who was either attractive or unattractive. When asked to make hypothetical food selections to eat in front of their assigned partner, heterosexual males and females dining with the opposite sex tended to order options with fewer calories the more attractive they perceived the dining partner. However, only individuals not currently in a romantic relationship demonstrated this indication of a personal desire to improve or maintain one’s health via nutrition conscious choices. In other words, individuals with the potential to secure a mate attempted to display signs of fitness and increase personal likeability. Social context and personal mating motives, both food-irrelevant aspects, can be used to portray a positive image to viable mates through behavioral choices.
The literature reviewed briefly demonstrated a natural, innate attunement of human cognitive processing toward obtaining evolutionarily significant goals. Attention is captured and maintained by information relating to the detection and avoidance of danger, procurement of viable mates, and obtaining nutritional resources. How this information is interpreted and dealt with by the individual can be influenced by the observer’s motivations, goals, and evolutionary drives. While attention and perception often coincide in allowing an individual to explore and understand the environment, it is paramount to consider how the mechanisms driving these processes have adapted and evolved to shape their priorities.
- Alblas, M. C., Mollen, S., Fransen, M. L., & van den Putte, B. (2018). Watch what you watch: The effect of exposure to food-related television content on the accessibility of a hedonic eating goal. Appetite. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2018.11.034.
- Shabbir, M., Zon, A. M. Y., & Thuppil, V. (2012). Repetition is the feature behind the attentional bias for recognizing threatening patterns. Evolutionary Psychology, 18, 1–12.Google Scholar