The competition for attention Warren Thorngate, emeritus professor Psychology Department, Carleton Univerity
The competition for attention Two cynical summaries of my presentation: • Whatever we can do we can overdo – and will • Everybody lies, but it doesn’t matter because nobody listens.
What is attention? • Attention is the stuff we “pay” • To convert knowledge into information • What is inside our head into physical symbols or images outside our head • Examples: talking, publishing, videos • To convert information into knowledge • Physical symbols and images outside our head into knowledge inside our head • Examples: listening, reading, watching
Attention is a finite and nonrenewable resource • We must spend time to pay attention • A typical life supplies about 80 years of time • 29,280 days • 701,280 hours • We can only make withdrawals, never deposits, of time • We can never “save” time • All we can do is to divert it from one activity to another until, like the sand in an hourglass, it runs out
Properties of attention • Attention does not expand to accommodate the information available • We can pay attention to only one intellective task at a time. • Attention is selective • Directs both filtering & inference (selection & synopsis) • Selects for un-usual, un-expected, surprising events • Wanes when focused for too long (habituation) • We must pay attention to decide what to pay attention to.
The accumulation of information • Information proliferates • Example: published scientific articles now doubling in number about every decade • Psychology collectively published 2,730 articles in 1927 • 9,074 articles in 1957 • 36,327 articles in 1987 • 137,254 articles in 2010 = about one every 4 minutes • The number of published articles in psychology is now 16 times what it was when I received my PhD in 1971 • In 2010 there were • 6.8 million English books in print • 13 million hours of video uploaded to YouTube • 255 million websites • 107 trillion emails sent
Topography of information growth • Information grows in three dimensions • Length = history (old versus new information) • Breadth = number of different topics, • Depth = amount of information on each topic • The limits of attention require us to choose what volume of this blob we will attend to • Historical truncation: ignore old stuff • Synopsis: know a little about a lot • Specialization: know a lot about a little
One consequence of our attentional choices Less information to attend to More information to attend to As information proliferates (white rectangle), the chances of people’s knowledge (ellipses)overlapping decrease. Result: fewer common experiences, smaller chances of communication
Interesting questions • The expanding volume expands the choices we have about where to invest our attention. • What criteria do we use to choose what to attend to and what to ignore? • What are the consequences of the choices we make?
Criteria for attentional choices • Truth • We should attend to what is true, ignore what is false • Science as quality control • Importance • We should attend to what is important, ignore what is trivial • Interest • We should attend to what is interesting, ignore what is boring
An Interest-ingHypothesis • As information proliferates, so too does our reliance on interest for choosing what to attend • Growth of information requires us to be increasingly selective • Selecting by interest usually takes less time than selecting by truth or importance • Interest can often be judged by sensory or lower-level mental mechanisms in seconds. Truth or importance can take decades to assess. • Consider how we channel surf: how many seconds does it take to decide whether to click or stay? • So we rely on interest to make our “first cut” of information to attend • Usually cuts 99% of information available • We judge the remainder by its truth and importance only if we have the time • More often, we trust “advisors” to tell us what is true and important
The competition for attention • As information proliferates, the competition for limited attention becomes increasingly fierce • Winners receive attention to reward them for what they produce • The reward usually prompts them do more of what previously got them the attention • Losers have two choices • Stop investing attention to produce information • Make their information more interesting • Example: Evolution of the colon in academic reports
How to get attention • A popular method • Observe what gets attention now • Do the same • If it doesn’t work, do more of it • Examples: • Whining that gets attention • University degrees that get attention • Resume styles that get attention • Political campaigns that get attention • Physical appearances that get attention • Shocking behaviours that get attention • Terrorist acts that get attention • The Competitor’s Dilemma • Attention does not guarantee you get what you want • But without attention you are guaranteed not to get what you want
The paradox of proliferation • Whatever gives competitive advantage tends to be repeated • The more it is repeated, the more it loses competitive advantage • Consider the evolution of figure skating • Consider the evolution of the resume and job interview • Consider the evolution of crime shows on TV or cover pages of magazines • Thorngate’s Principle of Artificial Selection • All competitions evolve towards selection by arbitrary criteria
Where will this lead us? • Interest, and the attention it draws, has another remarkable property • We tend to lose it with repetition • Consider habituation while learning drive • Consider burnout of counselors • Consider Peter Mazer’s reports of Rwanda • The property is called boredom • Jacques Barzun’s hypothesis: • The most underrated force for historical change is boredom
What will become boring in the years ahead? • Crime shows on TV • University degrees • Current pop stars • iPads • Old jokes and politicians • Facebook • Achievement
And what will then become interesting to future generations? • Poetry • Spirituality • Working with hands • Community • Ethics • Reading • Radio • Small towns • And anything else current generations consider boring