You might have seen the study last year that claimed our attention span was now less than that of a goldfish. You may have also watched a movie for over an hour. How does that work?
We all know, generally, what it means to pay attention. But hold on, what is attention? How do we pay it?
In some of my research I was faced with the same question. What is attention? One way of thinking about attention that I liked was written by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Attention and Effort (1973). He talks about attention as a limited resource. It is the amount of effort, or cognitive capacity, someone allocates to a task. It has focus and intensity.
The focus part, is the focus (haha) of this post.
If we think of attention as a limited resource, perhaps that explains why we talk about paying attention. We talk about it like other things some people see as limited, like money, and time.
Rightly or wrongly, phrases such as, pay attention, conjure up images of exchange. Usually, when we pay for something, we’re expecting to get something in return. Think about it in a teaching context. If you are expecting people to pay you their attention, what are you giving them that is worth spending their attention on?
Because attention is limited, we can’t pay the same amount of attention to everything at the same time. Sometimes we have to choose the focus of our attention. Some researchers describe this choice about what we pay attention to as a gateway. If something gets through the gate, we pay attention to it. (How much attention we pay is the intensity part, by the way).
Now, you might be thinking about how you get through the gate? Well, give yourself some credit, you probably know most of that already. People have been paying attention to you for years. But here is a recap:
- Relevance is near the top of the list for opening the gate. Would you pay for something you don’t care about?
- So is novelty. How many times have you paid for something just to try it out?
- Estimated effort and estimated enjoyment are also up there. Would you (willingly) pay for something you thought wasn’t going to be enjoyable, or that you thought would be too difficult to even use?
So, the next time you find yourself talking about people not paying attention, have a think. Their attention is probably doing just fine; you just have to figure out how to get that gate open.
Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.