November 15, 2021

Attention in Everyday Life

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

I think about attention a lot. For years, I’ve taught Charles Derber’s The Pursuit of Attention in my Social Psychology course. Derber recognizes that attention is a fundamental human need. It’s normal and healthy to want attention. What’s unhealthy is when too many of us crave attention more and more of the time.

We can look at celebrities as massive attention getters. We can easily name famous people who have soaked up our attention through the years: Madonna, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Cardi B, Harry Styles, Lil Nas X. On a smaller scale there are influencers who fight for attention on YouTube and Instagram, and people using their talents to catch attention on TiKToK.

Reality television captures our attention in the form of pranks and shenanigans in shows like Jackass or shows that relish in interpersonal conflict and air dirty laundry like The Jerry Springer Show, or ones that showcase rich and glamorous lifestyles like Keeping up with the Kardashians, or ones that highlight relationship problems and dramas such as Catfish and 90 Day Fiancé.

We also seek attention in everyday conversation. We use humor and stories to try to compel people’s attention. Derber points out the different ways we participate in conversations. In daily conversation, we use both “support responses” and “shift responses.” If you say “I feel lousy today” and I reply “Bummer. What’s going on?” that’s a support response that keeps the focus on you. But if when you say “I don’t feel well” and I say “Same here! I’ve had a headache all day. I slept awful last night” that shifts the focus to me.

In a healthy society we would aim to share attention. But the reality is that we often fight for attention and do a poor job of balancing our own attention needs with the needs of others.

Derber discusses how gender socialization is a factor in attention giving and attention getting. The traits associated with masculinity--competitiveness, assertiveness, aggressiveness--are more about getting attention. The traits associated with femininity—being caring, nurturing, sensitive--are associated with giving attention.

We can see this play out in gender-typed jobs. Women are over represented in attention giving professions like nursing, teaching, and childcare, and men dominate attention-getting positions like CEOs and politicians. Think of all the attention Elon Musk receives in the news about his wealth or how he uses Twitter in provocative ways to get attention, like when he recently mused about starting a new university. Donald Trump is the master of commanding attention, having captivated public attention for several decades.  He began his career as a flamboyant businessman in the real estate and casino industries, splashed his name on buildings, starred on The Apprentice, , and ultimately basked in the attention on the worldwide stage as president of the United States. Other politicians in our TV and social media age have enjoyed the public spotlight but no one is able to wrangle attention as easily as Trump.

Traditionally, Derber suggests, men are more self-oriented and women are more other-oriented. However, the future may be one in which more of us, both men and women, are self-oriented and compete for attention. What’s wrong with a society in which people fight for attention, rather than share it? The problem is if we constantly try to gain attention, we’re less concerned about the well-being of others and the health of our communities.

In Derber’s analysis, we are overwhelmed and overburdened. Tired and anxious, we become preoccupied with our own problems. Our capitalist system and individualistic culture cultivates a survivalist mentality. It’s a feeling of sink or swim, alone. We become self-absorbed, so much so that we have little or nothing to give to others. Many of our jobs are precarious. If you are insecure at work, worried about your job, how much attention can you give to your friends, or to your partner?

Themes of attention are apparent in a book I just finished reading, True Love by Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh. After posing the question “Do you have time to love?” (p. 6), he tells the story of a boy who was asked by his father, a rich man, what he wanted for his birthday. The boy didn’t want a gift that money could buy. All the boy wanted was attention from his father. But the father was too busy to spend time with his son.

As Thich Nhat Hanh observes, we are sometimes too tired and busy to even look in the eyes of the person we love. Elsewhere in the book, he discusses the importance of listening. One reason people suffer is that they have no one who will listen to them. He says we can ease the suffering of another person if we listen with calm and understanding. I connect this back to Derber and the pursuit of attention. If we are self-oriented, and primarily worried about our own attention needs, then it probably means we aren’t carefully listening to what people in our social world have to say. To listen better is a step in the right direction of allocating attention in positive ways.

I dedicate this post to Peter Kaufman, who died three years ago on November 19, 2018. The Pursuit of Attention is a book we used to talk about, and Peter’s writing on Buddhism inspired my growing interest in Buddhism. I think about Peter all the time. I miss him dearly, and I thought of him even more than usual while writing this post. Peter was someone who practiced deep listening; he paid close attention to the details of other people’s lives. As a caring and compassionate person, he was other-oriented. He held community values and community spirit. Sharing attention in a cooperative way is a skill that he practiced and modeled, one of the many ways he’s inspired me.  

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