Can you focus as well as you’d like?

What do gym-goers think about when they’re lifting weights? I don’t know, but in recent years I can see what half of the gym-goers are looking at between sets: their phones. Some become so engrossed that they seem to forget, for a while, that they’re at the gym.

            Outside, walking along, when I come up behind a young person who is walking slowly, I guess they’re multitasking: walking and checking their phone. Usually they are.

            For years I’ve been fascinated with attention, including what we pay attention to and how we maintain it. Part of the challenge is having some control over our attention when others are trying to hijack it, for their own purposes. You might be trying to read but the children want you to do something with them. Or you get a call from a friend. Sometimes interruptions are welcome, such as when you’re doing a boring task and you need a break.

            Interruptions from children and friends are one thing. Interruptions for commercial purposes are another. For quite a few years I’ve been reading about how advertisers seek to capture people’s attention.

            For an eye-opening survey of media and attention, see Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. Wu tells how US and UK military propaganda methods were adopted by advertisers, who then pioneered more effective methods. According to Wu, the standard method for capturing your attention is to offer something for free — or just seeming to be free — and then resell your attention to advertisers. Because attention is scarce and there is competition, the race heads downwards, seeking to engage with the intuitive mind and sidestep the rational mind. From The Attention Merchants I learned a different way of understanding developments in television, celebrities, blogging, Facebook and much else. My blog post.

            For understanding how social media have become so good at capturing attention, turn to Adam Alter’s book Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching. It’s a highly engaging account of behavioural addictions, covering evidence for their rise (especially via smart phones), addictive tendencies, the biology of addiction, the engineering of behavioural addiction through goals, feedback, escalation, cliff-hangers and social interaction, and what to do about it. Alter provides a stimulating treatment of gamification, in which activities are turned into games. He addresses how habits are formed. My blog post.

Stolen focus

Then I heard about Johann Hari’s new book addressing attention. I had learned a lot from his first two books, Chasing the Scream about the war on drugs and Lost Connections about depression. Hari writes in a highly engaging way, telling about his search for answers to crucial questions, drawing on his own experiences and interviews with key participants and researchers.

            Hari’s new book is titled Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. He starts with the observation that many people don’t seem to be able to focus for as long as they used to. He tracks down researchers who have studied the capacity to focus. They say the evidence does show that, on average, people’s capacity to focus is declining. Hari wants to find out why.

            He first tackles the most obvious explanation: social media and apps. You might think you are in control of what you do when using your phone. Think again.

            Hari interviewed a former Google engineer, Tristan, who says that success for Google workers was getting more people engaged, in other words hooked. This was not a nefarious plot but simply maximising income: engagement brings in more money from advertisers. At Google and elsewhere in Silicon Valley, no one thought about what they were doing to people’s attention.

            When you use your smartphone, the phone is smarter. The apps are designed by some of the smartest people on the job market to capture your attention. Hari lists several ways that websites and apps are designed that harm attention.

  1. They train your mind to crave rewards – frequent ones.
  2. They encourage you to switch tasks. Task-switching disrupts attention.
  3. They learn what make you tick and use what they learn to distract you and keep you on the platform.
  4. They make you angry, because being angry keeps you engaged. The result is that online, condemning rather than understanding has become the norm.
  5. They make you feel like you’re surrounded by angry people, though this is partly a result of getting everyone engaged.

The result is that your capacities — your intelligence, rationality and focus — and those of others are downgraded.

            What should be done? Why not just take control? Switch off notifications. Unsubscribe from lists. Set your phone to be offline for designated periods. When you go to bed, put it in another room. Hari talked with Nir, who helped develop engrossing apps and then wrote a book about how to resist them. Hari agrees that individuals can do a lot to protect themselves from perpetual distraction, but it’s not enough. When users are up against highly sophisticated algorithms designed to bypass rational controls, only a few have the resources to resist effectively.

            Hari supports individual efforts but thinks collective action is needed to bring websites and app design into a different model, one that supports users rather than exploits them. He gives a nice example of what could be done. It would be simple to develop an app to tell you about everyone in your neighbourhood who would like to go out for dinner, right now. But such an app isn’t available because it would help people go offline.

Johann Hari

What else?

A good portion of Stolen Focus is about devices that hijack your attention, but Hari thinks there are other factors, and continues his explorations. Another important contributor is insecurity. If you’re worried about your job or being able to pay your bills, then it’s harder to concentrate. With the rise of the gig economy in which many people can only obtain insecure and irregular employment, it is no surprise that anxiety levels escalate and attention suffers. Hari argues that a UBI, a universal basic income that is provided to everyone with no strings attached, would do a lot for people’s attention, and for their happiness as well.

            Another factor is your diet. Do you ever binge on junk food? When you aren’t getting enough nutrients, that’s a problem. When you get too much sugar, then after a while your blood sugar level crashes, and your capacity to focus suffers. Add to this environmental chemicals that can affect the brain, especially kids’ brains. Hari says added chemicals in food, as well as ones in the environment, are damaging to attention.

            Finally, Hari explores the way that children, in many affluent societies, are continually monitored. Due to exaggerated fears of child abductions and the promotion of “stranger danger,” many parents no longer allow their children to walk or cycle to school or to play unsupervised. Actually, says Hari, children need the opportunity to organise their own activities. Adults, by their excessive oversight, are not meeting their children’s needs.

Here’s how he summarises the impact of several of the factors he explored:

“We don’t let them play freely; we imprison them in their homes, with little to do except interact via screens; and our school system largely deadens and bores them. We feed them food that causes energy crashes, contains drug-like additives that can make them hyper, and doesn’t contain the nutrients they need. We expose them to brain-disrupting chemicals in the atmosphere.”

This is quite an indictment, but there’s only so much an individual can do. Many of the processes Hari describes are hard to escape unless you are really privileged. If you’re Bill Gates and own a small island, you can go there to get away from interruptions. Otherwise, you’re largely on your own — unless you join up with others to bring about change. Hari says there needs to be a social movement to regain the capacity to focus, a movement to support people engaging in the experience of flow in which you become totally engrossed in an activity requiring you to exercise your skills.

            As a clincher, Hari says the people of the world need their attention to deal with serious problems such as climate change. This sounds good. I followed Hari all the way with his explorations, and definitely think it’s worthwhile to cultivate the capacity to focus, and to use it regularly — including to read every word of Stolen Focus. The problem is that the power of attention can also be turned to less noble purposes such as building weapons and constructing ads. Yes, let’s join together to protect and restore our capacities to focus, but also join together for goals that help others.

Brian Martin