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The competition for attention

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The competition for attention

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  1. The competition for attention Warren Thorngate, emeritus professor Psychology Department, Carleton Univerity

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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

  9. 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?

  10. 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

  11. 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

  12. 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

  13. 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

  14. 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

  15. 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

  16. What will become boring in the years ahead? • Crime shows on TV • University degrees • Current pop stars • iPads • Old jokes and politicians • Facebook • Achievement

  17. 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

  18. It’s just a matter of time…

  19. Thank you for your attention!