An adaptive view of attentional control. Academic Article uri icon


  • Although humans can voluntarily direct their attention to particular stimuli, attention can at times be involuntarily allocated to stimuli and such attentional capture can result in unproductive distraction. A challenge to any comprehensive theory of attention is to explain how involuntary mechanisms of attentional control and their potential to produce distraction are ultimately reflective of an adaptation. Traditional arguments on this topic have appealed to a generalized cost-benefit accounting. Specifically, the cost of misallocating attention to the kinds of stimuli prioritized by involuntary mechanisms of attentional control over the long run is argued to be small in comparison with the potentially life-altering cost of failing to attend to such stimuli, which involuntary mechanisms of attentional control guard against. Our understanding of these mechanisms has undergone a revolution in recent years, findings from which point to a much more sophisticated adaptation that systematically maximizes benefits associated with automating the control of attention while minimizing unwanted distraction. In this review, I provide an updated model of the adaptive nature of involuntary mechanisms of attentional control, outlining concrete principles governing the management of specific costs and benefits. I conclude that distraction does not in general constitute a failure of attentional control but rather reflects the joint product of these adaptive principles. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).

published proceedings

  • Am Psychol

author list (cited authors)

  • Anderson, B. A.

citation count

  • 6

complete list of authors

  • Anderson, Brian A

publication date

  • December 2021