Are you paying attention?

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

When you look at a zebra do you see a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes? Similarly, when you look at a map of Europe why do we all see the ‘boot’ of Italy but tend to miss the elephant’s head of the Western Mediterranean?

While you’re thinking about those two questions, count how often the letter f appears in this sentence:

finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.

All three of these questions are about how we focus our attention. In particular, what they show is what we notice and don’t notice. This is a question that has fascinated social scientists for a long time.

In one regard, attention can be thought of as a spotlight. There is so much going on in the world around us (and inside our own heads) that we cannot possibly process all of it. Attention is what focuses our awareness on the subset of things that we identify as being important. But precisely because there are always other things to attend to, focusing on any one things takes real effort. This is why we talk about ‘paying’ attention.

And paying attention has real costs. If you are focused on one thing, it’s much harder to notice others. A good illustration of this is Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ “Invisible Gorilla” experiment. This asked observers to count how often a basketball was passed between players on a team. Except, in the middle of the video, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks onto the court, stands in front of the camera. The gorilla is in shot for nine seconds but half of the people who took part in the experiment never saw it.

It may be that those who did notice the gorilla just couldn’t focus as long as the others. Psychologists estimate that your mind wanders at least 30% of the time, and that wandering is probably its natural resting state.

Even more interesting is that most people have an attention span of between seven and ten minutes. It’s not that we can’t focus on tasks longer than this but that we need to renegotiate for that attention after this time.

Now just reflect on how long most work meetings last, most classes run, and most conference papers drag on. If you have ever found yourself losing the will to live in any of those be reassured that you are not alone. This is why the Pecha Kucha approach to presentations is so refreshing. Here you are allowed only 20 slides, and 20 seconds per slides. Which sums to about seven minutes of talking.

It’s easy to see ‘mindfulness’ as being the antithesis of the need to ‘paying’ attention. Mindfulness is about living in the moment and it is involves what is known as ‘open’ attention. This means observing your thoughts and feelings but without judging them (or letting them judge you). Think of it as sitting on the bank of a slowly flowing river and watching your thoughts float downstream.

There is a lot to recommend mindfulness but it still involves the deliberate application of attention. Because so much of what we do at Research First deals with consumer behaviour these days, we find the ‘sociology of attention’ approach is often more useful. This looks at how what we pay attention to is a constructed by social settings and structures that we are often not aware of.

In the sentence about ‘finished files’ above the letter f occurs six times. People often count fewer Fs because they miss those in the word ‘of’ (which occurs three times). They do that because the conjunctions in sentences are often irrelevant to its meaning. Given we tend to read for meaning first, our attention ‘skips’ over the conjunctions.

We see the same kind of pattern in all kinds of different ‘attentional communities’. These can be cultures or professions. Think about how something as a simple as a game of rugby looks if you’re a spectator, a coach, a sponsor, or the team doctor. In other words, our culture and our education shape what we pay attention to and what we dismiss as irrelevant.

But seeing attention in this way is not just an interesting sociological observation. There is a strong argument that the root of disagreement is really in a dispute about what we should pay attention to. This goes for disagreements in your relationships, your workplace, and in the world of policy. From this perspective, creating a vision and getting people signed up to it first means creating a shared sense of relevance. Which is why the first question we should all ask when faced with a problem is not ‘what should we do about it?’ but ‘how should we think about it?’.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock