Walking across a crowding shopping mall, you may see a group of people who vary in their race, gender, attractiveness, clothing style, and demeanor. A similarly complex array of social stimuli confronts us at conferences, airports, farmer's markets, and college campuses. Rarely do we attend equally to all individuals in such complex social environments or to all characteristics of any given individual. Rather, we selectively direct our attention toward a smaller subset of individuals and characteristics. This selective direction of attention often occurs automatically, without conscious intent, and can have important consequences for subsequent thoughts and actions.
Who do we attend to, think about, and later remember? And how are the answers to this question linked to our goals at the moment? We recently embarked on a program of research to explore the processes that influence the selective and automatic direction of perceptual and cognitive resources. In this chapter, we present a conceptual framework that begins to articulate the role that fundamental social goals play in governing these processes. We focus, in particular, on the ways in which self-protection and mating goals selectively facilitate attention toward people who have characteristics relevant to those goals. Integrating theory and research on selective attention processes, the influence of goals on social cognition and behavior, and ecological theories of motivation and social cognition, our framework yields some novel hypotheses about how self-protection and mating goals influence attention to, perceptions of, and cognitions about individuals who differ in gender, physical attractiveness, and ethnicity.