Pay Attention to Attention

Two books that influenced my thinking in 2016 were Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head and Robert Cialdini’s Pre-Suasion.

Crawford is a philosopher and BMW motorcycle mechanic. His first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft (also recommended) was about the value of making things. The World Beyond Your Head is about how entities — government, media, and corporations — capture our attention to satisfy their own needs. The most striking portion of The World Beyond Your Head was a discussion of the science used by programmers of casino video slot machines to capture and hold the attention of gamblers “to extinction” — until they have no more money to put in the machines.

Cialdini is a psychologist. His first book was Influence (also recommended, though the principles of Influence are revisited in Part 3 of Pre-Suasion). Pre-Suasion is a guide to capturing and holding people’s attention to persuade them to do what we want them to. Attention is central to persuasion because what is salient is important, and what is focal is causal. The positive (offensive?) use of Cialdini’s pre-suasion principles by criminal-defense lawyers in jury trials will keep. (If you want to join me and some others in investigating it, email me.) The takeaway from the Crawford and Cialdini books relevant to this post is:

There are people using science to get your attention, and they do not have your best interests at heart. They will use this science to harm you, and often they do.

Attention is Currency

Pay attention: You have a limited number of seconds of attention, and you can spend a second on only one thing. There are no refunds, however, for buyer’s remorse. If you have a choice between a better thing to pay attention to and a worse thing, and you choose the worse thing, you are harmed by, at the very least, the opportunity cost of choosing wrong.

Those who would use science to get your attention (hello Facebook!) are calling your attention to things that are profitable to them, not things that are beneficial to you. They are arbitraging your attention, and in fact the less value they can give for it the better.

We love to argue, and we hate for people to be wrong on the internet. But people use this to our disadvantage. They say things that are wrong just to get us to argue with them, because while we are arguing with them they have our attention. And attention to something makes that thing important to our minds (what is salient is important). So they control our minds by controlling our attention.

Keep your attention your own.

Given the choice between being passively entertained and educating myself, I’ll choose the latter. Given the choice between face time with human beings and screen time, I’ll choose the former. But I am not here to tell you what you should spend your attention on. If I were to, you might argue with me. And I’d be winning because I would have directed your attention to … attention.

We rationalize the importance of whatever it is that we are paying attention to: “I am watching The Bachelor to give my brain a break from all of the hard work it has been doing, ((If your brain needs a break, take a nap.)) and anyway it gives me insights into the thought processes of those stupid people who watch it unironically.” Once your attention has been captured, it’s hard to regain it.

So the only way to pay attention only to those things that make our world better (by making our lives and the lives of those we care about easier, more interesting, more fun, and generally better) is to keep our attention out of the greasy hands of those who would take it for a pittance in the first place.

So ask yourself, before you turn on the TV: Can I spend the next hour learning something? Writing something that will educate and entertain others? Reading an enduring classic of world literature?

If so (and when will it ever not be so?) you might choose to attend to that other thing instead.

6 responses to “Pay Attention to Attention”

  1. Mark – I enjoyed this blog. It made me think. How we spend our time is important and I don’t think most people give it much thought. I don’t think people give most things much thought. I look forward to reading your recommendations as it sounds like it will sharpen my skills on chosing where to direct my attention.

    FB is as you describe it. I use it more like a political blog to attack Trumpism. I hope to make people think. But I dont waste time arguing with Trump supporters. Arguing with a stump of wood would be a better use of my time. But you are right FB SWALLOWS YOU if you let it.

    Good blog

    Robb Fickman
    PS: para 3 says Influence where you mean to say Pre-Suasion

  2. You wrote “Given the choice between being passively entertained and educating myself, I’ll choose the latter.” Yes! Always! If entertainment means being stimulated and pleased and excited (rather than put into a mindless trance), then learning is far better entertainment than television, NASCAR, pop songs, etc. I am a long time newspaper reader who is beginning to despair as I watch contemporary news sites increasingly dominated by items with no learning value: celebrity gossip, clickbait self-help, “lifestyle” trivia, one-off lurid crimes, starlet bikini photos, and advertisements masquerading as news, features, and reviews. The “opportunity costs” of mass entertainment are far greater, I think, than people realize.

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