How do we measure attention? Using factor analysis to establish construct validity of neuropsychological tests

Cogn Res Princ Implic. 2021 Jul 22;6(1):51. doi: 10.1186/s41235-021-00313-1.


We investigated whether standardized neuropsychological tests and experimental cognitive paradigms measure the same cognitive faculties. Specifically, do neuropsychological tests commonly used to assess attention measure the same construct as attention paradigms used in cognitive psychology and neuroscience? We built on the "general attention factor", comprising several widely used experimental paradigms (Huang et al., 2012). Participants (n = 636) completed an on-line battery ( of six experimental tests [Multiple Object Tracking, Flanker Interference, Visual Working Memory, Approximate Number Sense, Spatial Configuration Visual Search, and Gradual Onset Continuous Performance Task (Grad CPT)] and eight neuropsychological tests [Trail Making Test versions A & B (TMT-A, TMT-B), Digit Symbol Coding, Forward and Backward Digit Span, Letter Cancellation, Spatial Span, and Arithmetic]. Exploratory factor analysis in a subset of 357 participants identified a five-factor structure: (1) attentional capacity (Multiple Object Tracking, Visual Working Memory, Digit Symbol Coding, Spatial Span), (2) search (Visual Search, TMT-A, TMT-B, Letter Cancellation); (3) Digit Span; (4) Arithmetic; and (5) Sustained Attention (GradCPT). Confirmatory analysis in 279 held-out participants showed that this model fit better than competing models. A hierarchical model where a general cognitive factor was imposed above the five specific factors fit as well as the model without the general factor. We conclude that Digit Span and Arithmetic tests should not be classified as attention tests. Digit Symbol Coding and Spatial Span tap attentional capacity, while TMT-A, TMT-B, and Letter Cancellation tap search (or attention-shifting) ability. These five tests can be classified as attention tests.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Factor Analysis, Statistical
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Trail Making Test