DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved February 18, 2019, from

5. The ‘pre-motor’ theory

Neither early selection theory nor late selection theory could accommodate all of the data concerning the fate of stimuli to which no attention has been paid. By the early 1990s the lack of resolution in this debate had come to be seen as evidence that the terms of the debate were somehow misconceived, but here was (and still is) little consensus about where the debate had gone wrong.

Some psychologists take it that the attempts to locate the bottleneck of attention failed because this is a bottleneck that moves. A version of this moving bottleneck view has been developed in detail by Nilli Lavie. The resulting theory—which is known as the ‘Perceptual Load Theory’—retains several features of its Broadbentian predecessors (Lavie 1995). Lavie draws on evidence from a variety of sources to show that people are better able to resist interference from distracting stimuli when those people have been given a task that involves more complex processing of the stimuli to which their attention is directed. She suggests that this can be explained if we suppose that there is a limited capacity pool of perceptual processing resources, but that these resources will be used up by early processing only if a large amount of early-processing is required for the subject’s task. If no earlier task has used them up, these resources will be involuntarily deployed for the processing of unattended stimuli. This theory predicts that selection will be ‘early’ in contexts where the task being performed has a high perceptual load, and that it will be ‘late’ in all other contexts. It is therefore able to explain why some experimental results seemed to rule out the early selection theory, while others seemed to support it.

Other psychologists have taken the problems with the debate between early and late selection theories to be more fundamental. Rather than thinking that the early and late selectionists were wrong only in taking the locus of attention to be stable, they have suggested that there is no one processing bottleneck that corresponds to attention, or have suggested that attention should not be understood as resulting from a bottleneck in processing capacity at all. the post-behaviourist rehabilitation of attention had been a mistake (see Parasuraman 1998). Some of these theorists have thought that the mistake of the early vs. late debate lay in trying to provide a single unified theory of attention, and have suggested that the explanation of attention needs to proceed in a more piecemeal fashion (Allport 1993; Taylor 2015). Others have thought that our scientific picture of the mind should be a picture in which there is no such thing as attention (Anderson 2011), and have suggested that the post-behaviourist rehabilitation of attention was a mistake (see Parasuraman 1998).

It is generally agreed that there were conceptual mistakes built into the debate about early versus late selection, as Broadbentoriginally understood it and as it was understood by his defenders and opponents in the decades that followed. Broadbent’s theorizing nonetheless remains influential, and opinions continues to be divided on the question of where its mistakes lay (see Driver 2001). Many researchers continue to take as their starting point Broadbent’s claim that the function of attention is to manage a bottleneck in ‘central’ processing capacity, related to the limited capacity of our consciousness. Although discussions of attention often introduce their subject matter in these terms – as if doing so were uncontroversial – – the literature has always contained rivals to this idea.

Citing this article:
Mole, Christopher. The ‘pre-motor’ theory. Attention, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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