Anne Treisman


One of the most influential people in the past fifty years in the field of Cognitive Psychology and Perception is psychologist Anne Treisman. Anne was born on February 27th, 1935. She is married to a psychologist named Daniel Kahneman, with whom she has four children. Anne earned her bachelor’s degree from Cambridge University and her doctorial degree at Oxford University; she has also acquired honorary doctorates from learning intuitions such as the University of British Columbia and University College in London (Treisman, n.d). She has been a professor of psychology in several prestigious universities, including the University of British Columbia (1986-1984) and the University of California-Berkeley (1986-1994), before accepting her current position as the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Princeton University in 1993 (Treisman, n.d). Her early work and published paper in Psychological Review was crucial to selective attention being recognized as a field of study in the scientific community (Treisman, n.d). The research she does is primarily geared toward memory, visual attention, and object perception usually done with behavioral methods (Treisman, n.d).

Some of the honors bestowed upon Anne Treisman:
  • Election to the Royal Society (1989)
  • ELection to the National Academy of Science in the US (1994)
  • American Academy of Arts & Sciences (1995)
  • First psychologist winner of the Minerva's Foundation's Golden Brain Award (1996)
  • Recipient of the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Psychology (2009)

Findings & Feedback

One of the most important contributions Anne has given to the field of psychology is her work on the Feature Integration Theory (FIT), a theory that to the present time is still dominant in the area of visual attention. In 1980, she proposed the notion that attention acts in the same manner as a spotlight does for the brain; it scans the environment and obtains features like distance, shape, color, and then links them together to form a comprehensive whole (Treisman & Gelade, 1980). During the first stage, the pre-attentive stage, the object is broken down by features such as color, motion, size, and so forth regardless of how we often imagine an object, as a whole, and not its individual parts (Treisman & Gelade, 1980). Each of these categories is processed by different parts of the brain (Goldstein, 2010). The second stage proposed by Triesman and Gelade is called the focused attention stage where the individual aspects of the object are then put together in our minds and we are able to assess it and assign learned knowledge and/or experience to the object (1980). For example, let's say you see an orange ball with black line with the word Spalding written across it being thrown between two men. Your mind then puts those attributes together, and you come to the conclusion that these two men are playing with a basketball. You then remember a basketball game you saw with a friend or that time someone threw you a basketball and you didn't catch it in time so it hit you in the face. In an experiment by Triesman and Gelade, participants were shown two black numbers and four different colored shapes for less than a second (1980). They were then shown another image not having to relate to the prior image and then asked to describe the shapes (Treisman & Gelade, 1980). Most of the participants combined attributes of different shapes and colors (Treisman & Gelade, 1980). This illusionary conjunction occurs often in visual searches (Goldstein, 2010). The second part of her experiment was showing people shapes and then describing objects that were similar to the appearance of these shapes. For example, the orange triangle resembled a carrot, the blue oval a lake, and so forth. The participants were more likely to recall the actual shapes and colors of the images shown then they were in the previous experiment where they often confused attributes (Treisman & Gelade, 1980). Triesman proposes that this is because prior knowledge helped make these objects more identifiable to the mind because of familiarity (1980). There are some that do not agree with this theory, for instance researchers such as Tsal, who do not believe there is as much empirical backing of the FIT to make it an actual theory (Tsal, 1989).


Anne Triesman's research has not only impacted the psychology world, but it's had its impact on the outside world as well. Her Feature Integration Theory is being used to try to understand psychological and medical conditions like Balint's Syndrome (Treisman, n.d). Balint's Syndrome is a condition where people can only recognize one item at a time. Because of the theory proposed by Triesman, scientists understand that it is not one part of the brain that can not assess these objects, but different parts, and the problem may lie in their ability to combine these features together (Treisman, n.d). Anne's theory has also made an impact in safety measures in places like airports. Many airport safety attendants have been trained to help spot suspicious items and sightings in a crowded airport because of her feature integration theory (Treisman, n.d). Her theory makes it possible to understand why we see the whole and not not the individual parts.

(Grawemeyer Award, 2009)

--Stephanie Lyons