Attention Saturation Disorder
At the beginning of April I challenged myself to give up sports and politics for one month. For the entire month of April I intentionally did not consume anything related to politics or sports. No sports shows, political blogs, newspapers, etc. This post is a follow-up on the experience as well as some thoughts in regards to the information we spend so much time consuming.
Politics: This entire experiment was inspired by the soul-sucking marathon that was the Republican party primary. Whatever your political allegiances are, you have to admit the primary process in the United States has transcended any actual discourse and turned into a media spectacle. Following it was about as pleasant as taking a shard of glass to the eye… and about as informative too.
Yet, January, February and March passed with me glued to my screen, processing every poll spike, every debate gaffe, every hate-infused political ad, with no tangible effect on my life other than stoking a general hatred toward humanity as I went about my day-to-day.
I read political blogs and news media daily for over a decade. I majored in International Relations in college and wrote massive term papers on the foreign policies of various US presidents and the geopolitical significance of the Middle East in regards to the Iraq War. At some point or another, this stuff all felt life-and-death important to me.
But to my surprise I didn’t miss following politics or current events one bit. In fact, ditching it was a large weight off my shoulders. Despite reading Andrew Sullivan daily for the past eight years, I never once had the itch to go back… and still don’t.
When I undertook the challenge a number of readers told me that if something was important enough, I’d find out through the grapevine, even if it was a few days or weeks later than most. This was true. I catch the occasional article that’s passed around Facebook and that seems to be good enough for me. Meanwhile my stress levels are down, I have more free-time and I love humanity again.
Sports: Unlike politics, I missed sports a lot, particularly the first week. In fact, I must admit I cheated on the sports challenge and checked box scores a few times. What I eventually found though was that my ability to follow sports definitely had an 80/20 quality to it.
I discovered that I still got 80% of the satisfaction out of investing only 20% of the time and effort keeping up with sports. I catch the big games, maybe read a recap or two each day, and perhaps one opinion column each week. This satiates my interest just as well as the hours and hours I used to spend each week watching highlights, following debates and listening to talking heads ramble on about why Lebron is overrated or whatever.
In fact, I found that my tolerance for that type of punditry has gone out the window. Podcasts which I used to love, I can hardly make it past the 10 minute mark without questioning why I’m investing 90 minutes of my life in prospecting the NFL draft and how good Peyton Manning might be. Who cares? It doesn’t affect me. As with politics, I’ve found that I am willing to wait and find out once it happens.
Attention Is A Limited Resource
Beyond giving me a lot of free time back, this experiment got me thinking about attention and how we budget it.
A while back, I wrote an article called Why We All Suck At Dating. In it I looked at perceptual biases and how they influence the way we value and perceive members of the opposite sex. For instance, your perception of the attractiveness of a woman will be influenced by whether you meet her in a coffee shop or in a board meeting. Your sense of connection with a significant other will be affected if there are perceived barriers such as long distances or the disapproval of her parents.
This is totally half-baked armchair psychology here, but I think we may have similar perceptual biases going on with the information we consume. We overvalue new information we receive, no matter how trivial or meaningless it is, because it’s new and stimulates excitement and interest within us. We also get unnecessarily attached to drama and the pointless information that fuels it. We overestimate its value because we vicariously experience emotions through it.
Market forces have taken advantage of this. There’s only so much information in the world relevant to your life or mine. But news companies, sports media, gossip sites, and the good ole’ interwebs inundate us with an endless stream of beautifully-packaged nonsense. And we can’t resist. They know how to trigger an endorphin-cocktail in our brains — Angelina Jolie’s new Africa baby, Lebron James’ fight with his coach, Mitt Romney’s electric bill — easing and soothing us into the latest info-tainment, helping us feel as if we’ve learned something important without actually having learned anything at all.
I don’t care how Facebook’s IPO went. It doesn’t matter to me what Newt Gingrich’s ex-wives say about him. I was never going to vote for him anyway. Jeremy Lin is Chinese. Good for him. I don’t know the guy. I don’t care about Michelle Bachmann’s 27 adopted kids or Prince William’s favorite brand of floss.
Attention is a limited resource. Society has evolved to the point where it can provide information at a far greater rate than any of us could ever hope to consume. Marketing and media has mastered packaging information in alluring and dramatic manners to suck us in and constantly want more. But what if we don’t need to maximize our consumption of information? What if maximizing it was actually hurting us?
I’m starting to believe most of us are over-saturated with information. I think the eruption of so-called “Attention Deficit Disorder” may not be so much a deficit of attention rather than a saturation of attention. There’s so much stimulation to consume that our brains train themselves to only focus on each item for the bare minimum amount of time. And then move on. Life has more breadth but no depth. No focus.