Selective Attention & the Self-schema

Selective attention (or attention bias)

In reality, there are a lot of different things we could be paying attention to at any given time. Because we can never focus on everything that’s out there, a selection has to be made in what we pay attention to. According to Goleman (1998) there is a filter which determines which kinds of information is selected and attended to. This filter functions before information reaches conscious attention and is driven by schemas. If certain information would lead to a very large amount of cognitive dissonance, selective attention may serve us in filtering this information out of our perception. These can lead to blind spots in our perception. This selective attention is driven by sub-cortical brain structures (like the amygdala) and is based upon the emotional significance of stimuli (Compton, 2003). What this means is that my brain may selectively screen out certain aspects of reality if these aspects of reality would be too much of a shock or an emotional stretch for me to experience.
I believe it is a similar type of mechanism that suppresses emotional pain when it is too unbearable to experience.
As human beings we need a healthy amount of challenge, stress or tension upon us. Not too much and certainly not too little. When perceiving something would lead to too much tension in the form of cognitive dissonance (or any other form of anxiety or uncertainty), selective attention may manipulate our perception and work to minimize the tension. 

Selective attention responds to things we VALUE

For reasons described in the previous part (under the negative consequences of a chronically activated Stress Response), minimizing fear, anxiety and cognitive dissonance (tension) is valuable to us, because it helps to make us feel safe.
Selective attention serves us in directing our conscious attention to things we value. Besides minimizing anxiety and tension, it also directs our attention to other things we value, like gaining resources (like food, sex, money, social support and other things we value). Whenever you find yourself glancing at some quality food, an attractive guy/gal or seeing an opportunity for gain, it is selective attention at work.
Also, as human beings we value our energy. Wasting energy is a loss of value. Keeping things the same conserves energy. Changing beliefs and schemas requires mental energy and if there is no greater value in doing so, it is more profitable to use selective attention to confirm that which we already believe or to just screen things out of our perception altogether.

Self-Deception and Denial

In the previous Part, I touched upon how past hurt and anxiety that follow abuse/trauma can lead to a numbed emotional experience, narrowed attention, addictions and a denial that anything like this is going on with me (“Really, I’m doing fine.”). These are coping mechanisms that help an individual survive and keep a person sane and functional in Life.
Selective attention is a big player in this and it helps us to minimize tension and anxiety when the experience of Life becomes too overwhelming.

“The brain, as we shall see, has the ability to bear pain by masking its sting, but at the cost of a diminished awareness.

The trade-off of a distorted awareness for a sense of security is, I believe, an organizing principle operating over many levels and realms of human life.

That same organizing principle is repeated at each successive level of behaviour:
in the mind’s mechanics, in the makeup of character, in group life, and in society.
In each of these domains the variety of “pain” blocked from awareness is successively refined, from stress and anxiety, to painful secrets, to threatening or embarrassing facts of social life. My thesis, in sum, revolves around these premises:

• The mind can protect itself against anxiety by dimming awareness.
• This mechanism creates a blind spot: a zone of blocked attention and self-deception.
• Such blind spots occur at each major level of behaviour, from psychological to social” (Goleman, 1998)

Due to these blind spots, it is possible for me to go for years being oblivious to things that are holding me back in major ways. My own brain may not bring certain aspects of reality into conscious attention for me simply because doing so would be too risky. Facing things that are uncomfortable is tough, but ignoring them keeps their negative impact in place.

Wayne Dyer once stated:
“It isn’t what you face in life that controls you. It’s what you don’t face in life that rules you; those things that you continually ignore and hope will go away.”

My brain will usually reveal these blind spots only when I feel more secure (when Life is going smooth for me); when I am ready to face them. I also find that having a strong desire for personal growth and self-change helps to reveal blind spots.
However, when self-deception and denial are up, people will screen this type of information out of awareness and claim that ‘all is well’ and actually be totally sincere in doing so. If you’re still reading this book, this probably isn’t you. Again, I want to acknowledge the fact that some people may be right in stating that ‘all is well’ and this would be the people that simply had very good quality upbringing. I think this includes only a very small percentage of people in society though. This type of stuff is not just reserved for severely abused people with the extreme disorders (those that go into therapy); it applies to most people, just to milder extents. Denying this fact helps us to keep our image of ourselves as ‘I’m all-right’ intact. As you may have guessed, there is another set of concepts that we value and hold very dearly, namely:

The Self-schema

We have schemas for a lot of things: dogs, cats, farms, traffic, plants, computers, hospitals, music, furniture, you name it.
We also have a schema for that person we call I, this is called the self-schema and contains all the concepts we associate with our sense of self. These include (but are not limited to):
My traits, my characteristics, my values, my beliefs, my roles, my possessions, my tastes, my preferences, my attitudes, my hobbies, my friends, my relatives, my views, my opinions, my standards, my goals, my dreams. All of these (and more) are concepts that I may associate with myself and are situated within my self-schema. It’s pretty much all the stuff you come up with when you ask the question: Who am I?

Action Exercise:

Take a blank piece of paper and write out what’s in your self-schema. Write out all the concepts that you associate with yourself and the answers that come up when you pose the questions: “Who am I?” “What am I about?”

When you’re done writing, examine the list and save it so you can examine it again in a later section of this book.

As I will clarify later, there may be some concepts that are more empowering to have within my self-schema than others and also the way I relate to my self-schema is a subject worth investigating. But more on this later; I want to cover a couple more basic concepts of Social Psychology first.

The next book piece drops at Friday January 27th on the topic of
Self-Verification and Self-Enhancement

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One Response to Selective Attention & the Self-schema

  1. Pingback: Healthy Boundaries, Concepts & Cognitive Dissonance | identityisdynamic

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