Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Are we losing our ability to focus? Is it harder now than in the past to pay attention to things? If so, do our work habits, lifestyle, diet, environment, and (especially) social media habits have anything to do with this? The author of this book, a writer and journalist who has consulted with experts in the field of behavioral science, believes the answer to all these questions is “Yes,” and although he brings up many valid points, I’m not convinced he’s entirely right. I think the real problem may be something else. It’s not that we can’t focus, it’s that our basic human instincts are being exploited to manipulate our behavior. A side effect of this is that our focus gets diverted.
In hopes of not coming off as a conspiracy nut, let me expand this short book review a bit to try to explain. I’ll try to keep it short without leaving out too much. You are more than welcome, encouraged, in fact, to stop reading here because I’m sure you have much more enjoyable ways to spend your time.
Ah, so you’ve volunteered to read my rant on social manipulation. Your indulgence is appreciated and my conscious is clear. You have been warned.
There is no doubt that sustaining mental focus on a task can be difficult. But that has always been true. I’m not convinced that people, on average, are less able to focus now than in the past. It’s an aspect of our nature. Humans are easily distracted. That’s not a bug in our genetic makeup. It’s a feature. There’s an evolutionary advantage to having the ability to quickly divert our attention from whatever we may be doing at the time to something more urgent, like from chipping flakes off a stone hand axe to a suspicious rustling in nearby bushes, which might be the sound of a stalking tiger.
I see no reason to suspect that human nature has changed much over the last 40,000 years. We still have the same instincts and basic needs as our Stone Age ancestors. However, we do live in a much different world than they did. People in most contemporary societies work longer, sleep less, and eat more processed foods with questionable additives than they did even a generation ago. There isn’t much doubt about that, but does any of this affect our ability to achieve “flow,” the highly productive state of mind in which our attention is so focused we can lose sense of time and of our immediate surroundings?
Maybe, but if diet and environmental factors can impact our ability to focus, I would expect that people would be more able to achieve flow now than in the past. After all, we are better fed, live longer, and are under less stress than most people throughout history. (This is true overall and in general. Your individual results may vary.) And, as far as I can tell, achieving a flow state is not uncommon. I’m sure most of us have done it. I have, most often when doing something creative, whether it’s writing, cooking, or creating a spreadsheet. I’ve experienced something similar when playing a video game or while binge watching a series on a streaming service without commercials. I’ve heard that some people have become so focused on a video game that they’ve forgotten to eat.
The author of this book brings up some good points about the pervasive distractions of modern society, and those observations cannot be dismissed. People often seem to have difficulty focusing. But if technology and modern living are not in and of themselves a detriment to achieving flow, what is the problem? We no longer spend a lot of time worrying about creeping tigers, bad harvests, plague, starvation, or barbarian invaders. Those are all distractions of the past. The distractions of the present are much different, and possibly more insidious, which finally brings me to what I think may be the real issue in all of this.
People have always lied to one another to gain food, sex, money, power, or influence. Unprincipled clerics, unscrupulous merchants, and unsavory politicians have been making a living at it for centuries, and it seems ironic that they are often respected for their success. But for our especially insane predecessors, The-End-Is-Near types and conspiracy nuts of assorted flavors, they could only spread their less than coherent rants through privately funded pamphlets and opinion pieces in newspapers.
Two important things have happened in the last couple generations that make the messages of lunatics, liars, and con-men far more effective. The behavioral sciences (including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics) have provided us with a growing understanding of basic human drives and motivations so that we can now better predict how people are likely to react in various situations. The second important achievement is that we have developed the technology to share information (and disinformation) widely and quickly. If used well, both these things can provide a real boon to humanity. But if abused, well, they could potentially help toss us back into the Dark Ages.
You can probably see where this argument is heading. Others have made it, and the author of Stolen Focus takes us there as well, but he treats it as only one aspect of a declining capacity for maintaining mental focus whereas I see it is a fundamental societal problem and a major impediment to any kind of human progress.
There is an old adage that goes, “If it bleeds, it leads,” because it has long been known that things like violent crimes, wars, and car wrecks on the front page will sell newspapers. Modern behavioral science confirms that human attention is instinctively drawn to things like conflict and potential danger. If you want to distract someone and get them to shift their focus to you, say something that makes them feel angry, threatened, or disgusted. (Sex is also an attention grabber, but it doesn’t seem as effective a motivator for anything other than more sex.)
With an understanding of what can attract and distract people’s attention, manipulators with dubious ethical principles design mind viruses to do just that. They create ads, infomercials, tweets, blog posts, fake news articles, short videos, and “memes” that exploit our instincts. They knowingly design these things to trigger a visceral reaction and a sense of urgency to get us to either buy things we don’t necessarily need or to believe things that are not actually true. Some of the content creators are driven by ideology, but others do it for the money or to boost their egos. They probably don’t see themselves as Evil or even as dishonest. They may sincerely believe in the delusions they are trying to spread, or that they are simply engaging in a legitimate business practice. It’s just a form of advertising, right? And everyone knows advertising is, at best, not entirely objective. Whatever their motivations, the perpetrators of these mental social diseases then release them into the wild to breed. The internet is proving to be an especially effective incubator.
Social media services, like Twitter and Facebook, get their money from advertising, and they attract advertisers by getting lots of users who spend lots of time on their sites. (This is also true of traditional sources of news, which explains a lot about cable news and talk radio, but let’s focus on social media, for now.) More users, more time, more advertisers, more money. So, how do they get more users to spend more time looking at Tweets and Facebook updates? By exploiting even more insights uncovered by behavioral science. In addition to having an instinctive wariness that causes us to be distractable, humans also have a basic need for social acceptance. Social media provides these with “likes” and retweets and other forms of online engagement. We get a certain rush when someone “likes” our Facebook status update or retweets one of our Tweets. It makes us feel accepted, appreciated, part of a community. Put it all together and you have some very powerful tools for social manipulation, and those tools are being used.
I’m not saying this is some kind of grand conspiracy. Although some individuals and a few disreputable groups are knowingly spreading lies and disinformation, I believe most people believe what they’re posting or sharing. I have no doubt that there are people who actually think Earth is flat or that the Moon landing was faked. (I don’t understand how they can believe such things, but that’s beside the point.) But regardless of their sincerity, I’m certain that both the intentional liars and the unfathomably misinformed aren’t working together in a scheme of world domination (mainly because they don’t seem to play well together). It’s just that social media tends to amplify exaggerated and outrageous claims because crazy stuff is especially good at attracting attention.
Social media algorithms learn and adapt, and they’ve noticed what people will stop scrolling for and at what they’ll respond to and share. It doesn’t matter if these things are true or false of if people agree or disagree. What matters is that they engage. The algorithm makes note of these engagements, does a bit of math, and perfects its technique to gain viewers, which tends to amplify attention-grabbing messages. “Ah,” it says. “I see you like kittens. Here, let me show you this post people are sharing about a group of Bastet worshipers who are abducting pet cats and using them in cannibalistic rituals in the basement of a pizza shop. I estimate there is an 84% chance you’ll have an opinion about it.”
And that’s basically it. People come up with all sorts of crazy stuff, and social media amplifies crazy because crazy captures attention. So, the real problem, or at least the main problem, is not that we have difficulty focusing, it’s that we’re being deluged with things that are designed to distract us, and social media is amplifying those distractions because it supports their business model. (It’s also leaving a lot of truly misinformed, unnecessarily angry, and often well-armed people all over the world, which is also quite distressing.)
So, how do you fix it?
The author of Stolen Focus offers a few suggestions, including nationalizing social media to remove the profit motive, and using social media to put together a grass roots movement to recognize and fight the dangers of social media. (I found that last one a bit ironic.) I’m not dismissing either notion. Both might help, but since the bigger issue for me isn’t our loss of focus but rather that we’re being inundated with falsehoods, I had a different notion.
Maybe we could do something about making lying illegal. Right now, I’ve heard it’s not, at least for politicians (in the US). Someone running for office can legally lie in their political ads. From making unsubstantiated claims to statements that are demonstrably false, it’s all allowed under the concept of Free Speech, leaving it up to independent “fact checkers” to verify any dubious assertions. I personally think this is wrong, mainly because I wouldn’t want to unwittingly elect a dishonest manipulator to a position of public trust.
In the US, we justifiably hold the concept of Free Speech sacred. The right to speak out can provide a societal check on abuses of power. It’s not an absolute guarantee, of course, nor is it an unconstrained right. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater (unless there truly is a fire) does not fall under the protections of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. A false statement likely to cause panic and injury is not considered a legitimate exercise of a person’s freedom of speech. I imagine it should be possible to apply this same principle to spreading falsehoods in public and social media. It would be best if such a law applied to more than politicians, of course. Perhaps it could be worded so that a person could be prosecuted for using public outlets to spread malicious or misleading information with intent to misinform the public or subvert honest discourse. Something like that, anyway. Getting the wording right, making it enforceable, and gaining the political support for its passage would no doubt be difficult, but it might be doable.
Anyway, thanks for reading my rant on social media rants. Feel free to comment and share. 😊
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