We are all victims of the ‘attention economy’

We are all victims of the ‘attention economy’

By Larry Rosen, Ph.D.
July 27, 2020


Scenario 1: You are stopped at a red light, waiting up to 45 seconds for it to change and rather than simply sit with your thoughts, you grab your phone and start tapping icons. Inevitably, the light changes and the driver behind you honks his horn since your eyes are facing down at your phone rather than up to notice the light change.

Scenario 2: You and your significant other are watching the news and instead of focusing all of your attention on the screen, you constantly check your phone even though you checked your email and social media just a few minutes earlier, and you have to keep asking what the reporter was saying.

Scenario 3: Your 14-year-old son has his own smartphone. You have discussed rules about phone use, including when it has to be stored for the night. You awaken at 3 a.m. only to see a light emanating from his room and he is on his phone hopping from one social media platform to another and messaging several friends.

The data from numerous studies of students, employees, families and others show that half of the time you check your phone is due to an alert or notification. The other half, your phone has not vibrated, beeped or played a tune.

I have been studying why we persist in checking in so often even when we know we are in a situation where it is unproductive at best and often downright rude.

Part of the answer can be summed up nicely in a letter sent by the Children’s Screen Time Action Network to the APA. Although the letter is directed at the impact of certain practices on children, it is equally relevant to adults.

Here is a quote from the letter, which was signed by dozens of psychologists, many of whom are experts in the field:

“We are writing to the American Psychological Association to call attention to the unethical practice of psychologists using hidden manipulation techniques to hook children on social media and video games. These techniques – employed without children’s or their parents’ knowledge or consent – increase kids’ overuse of digital devices, resulting in risks to their health and well-being.”

(The full letter can be found at screentimenetwork.org/apa)

We are all part of the “attention economy.” Since our attention is a “scarce commodity,” businesses strive to capture and keep it as much as they can, as their business model requires our eyeballs and brains in order to sell their products. The “product” can be as simple as buying something or as subtle as clicking on a link to pursue an advertisement for which they get paid.

The key to the attention economy business model is that the longer they can keep your attention, the more likely it is that you will keep returning and the more likely you will provide them with some form of compensation.
In the online world, these tools can be hidden and very insidious.

Take color, for example. Why do the circles showing how many emails or social media posts you have awaiting show white numbers on a red background? Because behavioral scientists have determined that this combination is most likely to attract your attention. That’s why this color scheme is used on stop signs.

Why do Snapchat and Words With Friends encourage “streaks?” To keep people snapping or playing daily.

Why are those tiny bubbles rippling on your iMessage screen after you send a text? To keep you waiting for a return text.

Why do apps use a spinning object to show that you are “pulling to refresh”? To keep you wanting more.

Why do some social media sites withhold likes or favorites until they can send you a bunch at a time? Because intermittent reinforcement is a strong behavior modifier.

Why do YouTube and Netflix autoplay the next video with a countdown?

I could give dozens of other examples, but I hope you get the idea of how our attentional resources are being hijacked. Now add in vibrations and beeps and these are all tools to get and hold your attention.
I think that Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, has summed it up perfectly:

“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions. It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.

“None of this is an accident. It is all just as their designers intended using subtle psychological tricks to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create ‘a craving,’ or exploiting negative emotions that can act as ‘triggers.’”

My research focus has now turned to how to help us reduce the pull of the attention economy. Apple and Google have given us a small assist by providing Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing apps that tell us how we are spending our daily and weekly smartphone time.

We need to pay attention to those data. But that is not enough. We need to apply countermeasures to avoid the attentional manipulation.

As my research progresses, I hope to keep you informed on what you can do to take back control.

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Larry Rosen, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and the author of seven books on the psychological impact of technology. His latest book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (co-authored with Adam Gazzely, MD, Ph.D., and published by MIT Press) won the 2017 PROSE Award for Biomedicine and Neuroscience.

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