Dolf Zillmann Indiana University Jennings Bryant University of Houston
At any moment, an enormity of stimuli impinges on the living organism. The organism neither is equipped to handle this stimulus onslaught, nor would it be meaningful in terms of self- and species-preservation to accomplish such a task. Survival, it seems, is well served by the neglect of most potential information. Or to put it more positively, survival is well served by a selective reduction of information, that is, a reduction to behaviorally significant cues to which the organism can respond in an adaptive fashion.
The selection of information is controlled, first of all, by the build of the organism -- specifically, the build of the sensory organs. Potential information (i.e., any physical process) that fails to stimulate these organs is obviously immaterial to the behavior of the organism. However, the "physical" reception of information by no means guarantees that the information is of any behavioral consequence. The organism focuses its perceptual efforts in unique ways, and it tends to utilize its limited capacity for processing received information in particular ways also. Focusing attention implies, of course, that not all available information can be given equal attention and that some information might not receive any attention. Focusing, then, implies selection. And as not all perceived information can be processed (i.e., behaviorally utilized or stored for later retrieval and behavioral utilization), processing also entails selection. But whereas sensory selection is fixed with the build of the organism, perceptual focus and selective processing are behavioral processes that are characterized by considerable plasticity. Although many of these selective processes are automatic and mechanical, many others are under volitional control and deliberate.
The various processes under consideration are perhaps best illustrated by considering early humans. Cave dwellers, for instance, were probably often