Attention

This post is inspired by The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu, Vintage Books, 2017, New York. Decision making is not a front line issue in the book, but it is also clear that we cannot control our decision making if we cannot control our attention. The book begins as a history of what has grabbed our attention from newspapers and posters to radio to television to computers and video games,  to the internet and its vehicles including our present attention grabber, the cell phone.  Of course, each attention platform has ultimately had to make money and advertising has been the dominant path chosen. Advertising is the villain only to the extent that it puts able resources into effectively capturing our attention. But we do not check our email so often or play video games so long due to advertising. There is definitely some behavioral conditioning going on.  Wu mentions that video games can even:  “induce a ‘flow state’, that form of contentment, of optimal experience, described by the cognitive scientist Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, in which people feel ‘strong, alert, if effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”

I would suggest that even checking your email can be a little like a flow state because you believe that you are doing something useful, but yet you get to avoid the work and effort of analysis. Wu ponders:  “And what are the costs to a society of an entire population conditioned to spend so much of their waking lives not in concentration and focus but rather in fragmentary awareness and subject to constant interruption.” Wu notes that it was philosopher William James, founder of pragmatism, who held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we paid attention. He suggests that maybe we need to put ourselves back in charge.

There is little doubt that cutting up our waking hours into smaller and smaller segments harms our decision making abilities. But we do not seem to understand that.  In the Invisible Gorilla  Chabris and Simons point out that:

  1. the illusion of attention insidiously makes us think we can do two or more things at once just as well as we can do either one alone.

  2. There is an illusion of potential in which we believe that there is some unused portion of our brain that we can tap.

Attention is closely allied with conscious thought as opposed to the automatic system, system 1 or intuition. This corresponds to Dehaene’s global neuronal workspace. Robin Hogarth equates consciousness awareness and attention in Educating Intuition.  With predictive processing, this may need just a little tweaking. In predictive processing we are always looking for prediction errors in our automatic System 1 work, but these are each narrowly focused. Attention in the overall context implies actively directed focus that can involve all the information that we have. Much of what we do unconsciously is like Homer Simpson at the nuclear plant. We are monitoring and checking, but until the warning bells go off, we are not doing much.

I am certainly best able to think issues through in the shower or when running or walking. The shower is easy to explain because there other stimuli is largely cut-off.  When running or walking, there seems to be some effort by your systems to limit attention to extraneous factors just to preserve function.  So when you are at work or at home and the environment is familiar and certain things serve as cues that may send you off onto a tangent. This brings into mind: “Car Talk”, where one brother talked of going from room to room in his home getting a cue to do something so that he forgot what he was supposed to be doing. You look at the floor and say “I should vacuum” and you go for the vacuum  and say “I should change the furnace filter”, and so forth. The attention grabbers in today’s world only add to this rather natural tendency.

I should note that chopping up our attention does serve a function. Daniel Kahneman states in Thinking Fast and Slow:

We normally avoid mental overload by dividing our tasks into multiple easy steps, committing intermediate results to long term  memory or to paper rather than to an easily overloaded working memory. We cover long distances by taking our time and conduct our mental lives by the law of least effort.

Apparently, as Goldilocks knew, to use our attention most effectively, we must use it just right.

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