Regaining Focus: Decoding the battle for your attention

This is part 2 in our series on attention. Read part 1 here.

The aim of using our attentional resources most beneficially is often at odds with the technology we spend large portions of our days with. The wealth of information available daily in the mobile device in your pocket is nearly limitless, and only a fraction of it will actually catch your interest. This makes your attention a highly sought-after commodity since it fuels countless companies vying for you to focus on their specific products or services.

Beyond traditional advertising, new types of marketing have become ever more prevalent over the past decade. The rise of surveillance capitalism centers around the capturing and monetizing of your personal data. Every time you use any of the large social media platforms, your behaviors are logged, tracked, and collected into a profile: a profile sold to marketers and companies desperate to learn the most effective ways to capture your attention.  

Another area that shapes our attention is the field of neuromarketing, which has become increasingly popular among large companies. This commercial discipline utilizes the findings from neuroscience to sway minds and form consumer behavior. Neuromarketing also makes use of psychological concepts and employs content that plays to our cognitive biases, like loss aversion (the fear of missing out) and the anchoring effect (this alters your reference point for what things are worth). It has also become more common to employ advanced technology to gain more knowledge about consumer habits, like using eye tracking and fMRI scans to study cognitive processes. By monitoring test subjects as they are exposed to consumer-oriented stimuli, marketers can study their attention in real-time and adapt their strategies accordingly. 

Closely related design strategies can also be found in certain game designs, especially common on the mobile devices you bring with you all the time. Game elements such as “fun”, “clever game mechanics” and “a good narrative” are subordinate to the aim of delivering a steady stream of dopamine kicks. The user is often nudged to spend money on microtransactions, catering to user tendencies to fall into the sunk cost fallacy trap. These game features share a closer kinship to the lure of online casinos and gambling: they not only steal your attention, but they also risk leaving a costly gambling addiction in their wake.

While these fields aren't inherently bad they have led to powerful tools that can subtly and effectively influence your feelings and behavior, often at your expense, compared to traditional marketing strategies. 

These technological advancements are components in seemingly grand scale weakening of our attentional capabilities. As Professor Joel Nigg, a leading expert on children's attention problems, warns: we are setting ourselves on a collective course into "an attentional pathogenic culture". This dire portrayal of our present circumstances was shared during an interview with Johann Hari, the author of the book Stolen Focus.

In this book, Hari delves deep into this apparent attrition of attention. Based on research findings and interviews with scientists from various disciplines around the globe, Hari identifies a dozen factors that contribute to the capacity loss of sustained attention. He brings up how the high pace, information-rich environments that the vast majority of us are marinated in are detrimental to our attention. The urge to constantly switch focus both makes us more error-prone and dulls creativity.  Creative output needs a certain amount of free reign to materialize, where your brain connects concepts and thoughts in novel ways–a process that is hampered by a mind constantly switching focus. This lack of sustained focus also brings with it a high cost of redirection when you attempt to wrest your attention back to more important tasks, which many office workers experience daily at work. Hari also mentions that the flow state, which anchors you in the present moment, has become much harder to reach for many people.

Keeping distracted and attempting to multitask will prevent you from reaching flow, as it requires your full attention on one single task. Most incentives on social media are in essence “anti-flow” and founded in behaviouristic ideas that mold user behavior en masse, tapping into our basic needs for status and recognition. Your motive becomes more “extrinsic”, meaning the action itself is valued less than the potential rewards you might reap in the form of likes or followers. Why truly enjoy the magnificent view on your hike or savor the delicious main course in itself, when you can post pictures of them online to gain likes from strangers? This can be put in contrast to “intrinsic” motivation where the motive is rooted in the joy of ”doing” itself, simply because you love doing it. Hari brings up one other component here that might have altered our motives: the modern child’s lack of autonomy, where free play without supervision is a nostalgic thing of the past. Without this experimental phase, intrinsic motives might to a greater extent be replaced by extrinsic ones, more often than not related to status or popularity, planted and nurtured by well-meaning parents or incentivized by social media.   

It is also clear that the thorough presence of surveillance capitalism in most people's lives directs our collective attention in unprecedented ways. Content that creates outrage grabs your attention more efficiently and is weighted heavier by the social media algorithms that feed your feed. Content is often delivered in bite-sized, easily digestible, chunks, leaving little room for more complex viewpoints. When this endless buffet of information is delivered, things like context, substance, or even factual truth might not factor into the equation. 

Hari proposes that the harm this new technological landscape has brought is compounded by modern lifestyle factors, societal issues, and the alarming rise of attention deficit symptoms in children, where it might be quite hard to disentangle the complex interplay between genetics and environmental factors. 

The author paints a bleak picture of an urgent global attention crisis that requires systemic change to solve, changes that address the underlying causes–away from an ever-accelerating world where growth is mostly gained at the expense of our attention.

Fredrik Köhler

Applications Coordinator

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