The Attention Effect

Have you ever found yourself glued to the television or following a particular news story, your attention laser-focused on the outcome of the event? Focused as if your life depended on the result or even as if you could influence it? It’s this last belief that I want to address.

It all began with a genuine interest in the dumpster fire that is our president. I then found myself refreshing the news site every few moments to ensure that I had the newest and freshest updates. Events were moving so fast that I couldn’t afford to turn my attention to other things because my attention was needed! The end result required me to stay focused.

Or so I believed. So we all believe to a certain extent.

Some scientists believe that humans have an innate tendency toward religion. I think that it is less about a higher being than our collective ability to influence the world around us. Essentially, an inherent faith in the power of belief or a belief in the power of faith.

However, I believe that this instinct is more a group focus than a religion. We believe that our attention on an event can influence that event. I call this the Attention Effect. It is similar to the Observation Effect in Quantum Mechanics, where “the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon.” The Attention Effect is the belief that “the focused attention of the observer on the phenomenon can influence the phenomenon.” Not only can we change the phenomenon by observing it but can consciously change the result.

“We must have Faith” is another way of saying this. But rather than focusing our attention or faith on a diety to influence events, we have sidestepped the need for a diety with belief in our own ability to directly control events.

The secularization of society has redirected our faith away from religion to other outlets. The news cycle, the drama of social media, sports, the stock market, and currently, in my case, politics need our attention and influence to move in our favor. We have convinced ourselves that we can nudge the events by watching by paying attention.

In my case, politics is much like watching sports. I couldn’t afford to miss a single play because the entire game may hinge on that one moment. I needed to Pay Attention! Because of the Attention Effect!

Rather than a diety, society has turned our superstition to other things. Our institutionalized faith is now focused on the news cycle, sports teams, politics, or a celebrity’s love life. Our attention has been siphoned off, bottled, and monetized. And, yet, still has no effect on events. None…Nada…The same nothing as always. But marketing and capitalism have conspired to give us the warm fuzzy feeling of participation and accomplishment. But it’s illusory. Yes, we participated in a cultural moment, but that moment will ultimately be lost in the static of every other cultural moment.

The hours I spent focusing my attention did not accomplish, influence, or earn me anything.

In the meantime, my novel isn’t finished, I have not mastered German, I still can’t play Crazy Train, and all my goals of youth, of last year and even yesterday are unaccomplished, sacrificed on the altar of attention. If Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci or Shakespeare had had access to the internet, we wouldn’t have the masterpieces they created because they would have been too distracted to do the work. Their attention would have been needed, nay demanded elsewhere.

So, the next time you find yourself glued to the television or the internet for no constructive purpose, TURN IT OFF. Turn it all off and walk away. Get some work done. CREATE!!

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