Tag: attention

Our culture of distraction

May 24, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
Our culture of distraction

I remember the good old days, when I received a dozen or so emails every day at the office, thereby obviating the need to send and receive paper letters on those matters. Then something unproductive happened. As I started getting more and more emails, I found that they were becoming more fragmented, like stretched-out conversations, and more lost in a sea of emails that tried to sell me something or tried to make sure that I was constantly updated as to nothing very important.

Keeping up with email, then, has become both an incredible tool and a huge time drain. I think of that every day as I read and create 100 emails, many of which require detailed responses. Email, which was once a way to avoid sending and receiving paper letters, is now taking up several hours of every day. Why don’t I turn it off and get a lot more done? Because, every day, I end up decided that I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath-water. I love-hate the way email barely often enough distracts my attention to something that barely often enough requires my attention.

Sam Anderson explores our new attention-divided culture in a New York Magazine article titled, “In Defense of Distraction”:

This is troubling news, obviously, for a culture of BlackBerrys and news crawls and Firefox tabs—tools that, critics argue, force us all into a kind of elective ADHD. The tech theorist Linda Stone famously coined the phrase “continuous partial attention” to describe our newly frazzled state of mind. American office workers don’t stick with any single task for more than a few minutes at a time; if left uninterrupted, they will most likely interrupt themselves. Since every interruption costs around 25 minutes of productivity, we spend nearly a third of our day recovering from them. We keep an average of eight windows open on our computer screens at one time and skip between them every twenty seconds.

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Penn and Teller explain sleight of hand in three minutes

February 4, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
Penn and Teller explain sleight of hand in three minutes

Penn and Teller’s explanation of sleight of hand is delightful. You get the whole lecture in about three minutes.

As entertaining as this video is, it could also serve to remind us of a set of principles by which humans deceive each others through fallacious and misleading arguments. Because we are creatures of limited attention and growing fatigue, we are vulnerable to cognitive misdirection much as we are vulnerable to prestidigitation.

For more on human attentional limitations, see here. Further, I have given considerable thought to the idea that much human decision-making could be explained in terms of attentional limitations. For more, see this paper I wrote in 1996.

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How is high-speed high-volume inter-connectivity affecting our brains?

December 30, 2008 | By | Reply More
How is high-speed high-volume inter-connectivity affecting our brains?

What happens to our brains when we sit at our computers for long periods of time interacting with the cyber world? This question was considered in an article called “Meet Your iBrain,” appearing in the October/November 2008 issue of scientific American Mind. The authors cite a 2005 Kaiser family foundation study that found that “young […]

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Moral blinders and the Banality of Evil. What you don’t ponder won’t disturb your conscience.

November 3, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More
Moral blinders and the Banality of Evil. What you don’t ponder won’t disturb your conscience.

Who does more damage, A) mean-spirited people or B) “normal” people acting thoughtlessly? According to Hannah Arendt, the answer is clearly B. I would agree. Why? Because we serve as our own gate-keeper as to what what aspects of the world are relevant, usually oblivious to the fact that the “gate-keeper” of the flow of “relevant” facts is our sycophantic enabler, and that the gatekeeper is often willing to help us express our deepest darkest instincts.

How is it that “normal” people so often behave (and vote) as moral monsters? In Eichmann in Jerusalem (discussed below), Arendt has written that the “banality of evil,” the failure to think, leads to monstrous deeds–the road to hell is mostly paved with a lack of intentions. I largely concur with Arendt, but I would explain the source of most evil in terms of the psychological concept of attention: human animals have limited attentional capacities, and ghastly things can happen when this scarce human resource (the ability to attend) is diverted (often self-diverted). Moral monsters self-train themselves to pre-filter their sensory perceptions so that they don’t need to attend to anything in the world that challenges their preferred viewpoints.

The trick to becoming a banally evil person is to allow yourself to dwell on limited viewpoints and experience. To grow your evilness, stop being self-critical, stop being skeptical and stop exposing yourself to viewpoints that challenge the way you currently live your life. When you become a professional at selectively attending to the “things” of the world, you can feel the rush of becoming a self-certain–you’ll become so certain of your beliefs that you won’t hesitate to impose your narrow intellect onto everything and everyone you encounter. And even when you are incredibly wrong-headed, you won’t realize it, thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect. That is the great power of the ability to selectively attend to one’s favorite parts of the world.

It takes courage to expose one’s self to information that challenges one’s pre-existing beliefs. Humans are intrinsically able to be self-manipulative–being skeptical requires much more work than running with the types of believes and conclusions that have pleased us in the past. That is also the nature of the confirmation bias. Most of us, most of the time, sub-consciously (or semi-consciously) selectively expose ourselves mainly to the types of information that will substantiate our preconceived notions and motives. We’ve all seen this with the many dysfunctional people who use the Internet selectively. They seek out only web sites that are compatible with their pre-existing bigoted, consumerist or shallow life-styles.

If you put on blinders that allow you to see only a limited slice of the world around you, you can spare yourself the need of emotionally reacting to desperate needs of humans around you. Most of us constantly blind ourselves to the plight of starving children in Africa. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s merely a matter of diverting our attention to something else, something not so disturbing.

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