Sustained Attention: Concept and Theories

Although you may not be familiar with the term "sustained attention," it’s relevant to your everyday life. Read on to discover some of the theories on what makes it easier or harder to stay focused.
Sustained Attention: Concept and Theories
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 26 October, 2023

Sometimes it’s difficult for students that are stuck in a mandatory education system to follow this advice from Albert Einstein: “Never regard study as a duty but as an enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later works belong.” This is the perfect quote to introduce the subject of today’s article: sustained attention.

As enjoyable as studying might be, it can still be extremely difficult to maintain sustained attention. One reason is the lack of interest in the subject. However, there are many other things, such as fatigue, that make it hard to pay attention to one thing for a long period of time.

What is sustained attention?

Sustained attention comes into play during many of your daily activities. It’s important for processes related to vigilance or supervision. In order for vigilance to be effective, you have to maintain your attention, which requires a certain level of activation.

Sustained attention also plays a role in learning-related processes. Students in a classroom have to try pretty hard to pay attention to what the teacher is saying. Sometimes, sustained attention mixes with selective attention. In other words, not only do you have to pay attention, but you also have to stay focused on a particular thing while you filter out other distractions.

Sustained attention comes into play when you trigger mechanisms and processes through which your body can stay focused and alert to particular stimuli during relatively long periods of time.

“You were not formed to live like brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge.”

-Dante Alighieri-

Why do we stop paying attention?

Personal experience tells us that it’s hard to pay attention for long periods of time. Your attention levels decrease over time. Although this happens for different reasons, the most important ones are:

  • Attention is like a muscle. It tires out when you exercise it and it needs time to rest and recover.
  • Over time, your brain gets tired of consciously focusing on one thing and is increasingly tempted by distractors. For example, the more hours you’ve been at work, the greater the temptation to check your phone.

There are things that can help you stay focused, such as motivation, small breaks, positive feedback, and flow.

Theories about sustained attention

Researchers have come up with different theories that attempt to explain how sustained attention works. Here are some of the most important ones:

Activation theory

Also known as the arousal theory, this theory proposes that to correctly carry out a task of vigilance, there must be a certain continuity of stimuli. For example, think about a security guard. It’ll be easier for the guard to stay focused if they move around and make rounds than if they spend the entire day sitting in the same spot.

Signal detection theory

This theory argues that the number of alerts decreases during a continuous performance task. In other words, if your sustained attention is worn thin, the stimulus would have to be more salient for you to detect it. Thus, you might find that when you pay attention for a long period of time, your correct answers decrease.

A bored woman procrastinating.

Expectancy theory

This theory tells us that a vigilant person who sustains attention will be able to sustain it longer if they actually expect something to happen. For example, the security guard will sustain their attention longer if they actually expect someone to rob the factory.

Likewise, if the expectation is low, it’s harder to stay focused. Consequently, when a student doesn’t expect that the teacher will say something interesting during class, it’ll be extremely difficult for them to pay attention.

Habituation theory

This last theory argues that if you get used to something, you’ll lose your interest and attention in it. In other words, you’ll lose focus as a consequence of regular repetition of irrelevant signals.

This is not an exhaustive list of the theories that explain sustained attention. However, they’re the most relevant ones and relate directly to what we know about attention.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.