Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Economics of Attention

Your attention is a scarce resource. In the Information Economy, this is more critical than ever. Before I elaborate on the economics of attention, I want to motivate its importance based on previous posts about scarcity in resources that are not land, labour, capital or enterprise. We've heard about the knowledge economy, information economics and time-allocation. While knowledge, information and time are important, it may be time to turn our attention to, well... attention - the new scarce resource.

To illustrate how economists think about 'non-traditional scarce resources', I'll begin with a discussion on time use (or time-allocation). This resource is the closest in essence to attention (with knowledge and information being more similar in their nature; also, attentive use of time is needed to acquire knowledge and sift through information). Time-allocation is the first-stage decision in various production functions; on top of this comes the application of attention. As time-use has been discussed quite a bit on this blog, it's a good place to start. Here's a paper about student time use and academic performance; here's one about whether the recession is making students study harder.

More recently there was a link to the presentation at Google by Zimbardo and Boyd on time perspectives. In the MetaPsychology review of Zimbardo and Boyd's book, the point is emphasised that time cannot be replenished - in contrast to other goods, such as gold, diamonds, etc. Therefore, you have to be more careful about how to spend your time. Zimbardo and Boyd ask: "Why do we often spend our money more wisely than our time?"

I agree with Michael Daly that the ability to recognise our time perspectives and to switch between perspectives efficiently is important (see a brief summary of the perspectives here). Aaron Swartz suggests that "time perspective” is a concept which Zimbardo has essentially come up with himself, but which he feels (not without some justification) is rather important.

I'm inclined to agree - after reading about and working with the consideration of future consequences scale (CFC) a lot - "time perspective" seems to offer a more comprehensive theory of how we interact with "time". There of course may be scope to use both the CFC and the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory in a research project - a recent article by Adams and Nettle in the British Journal of Health Psychology does just that.

In addition to time-allocation and time perspectives, 'attention' plays an important role in how human behaviour produces outcomes. The most illustrative example I can think of is the recent debate on student time use and online social networking. The question that we debated was "does Facebook hurt your grades?". The conclusion offered by Aryn Karpinski (at Ohio State University) is that her research does not suggest that Facebook directly causes lower grades, merely that there's some relationship between the two factors. "Maybe [Facebook users] are just prone to distraction. Maybe they are just procrastinators".

An attempt has been made to replicate the results of Karpinski's research. Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and a fellow this year at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, says the following: "We found no evidence that Facebook use correlates with lower academic achievement". More details on this are available here.

The main point I want to make is based on the opening comment in this post: that attention is a scarce resource. While students may allocate their time across activities such as study and online social networking, how much attention are they giving to each activity? Are they so zoned into Facebook that that they can't cope with the Twitter Mania, but when it comes to study is the intensity a lot less? Is designated study time interrupted by SMS text messages, tweets and the like? Or is there just less concentration applied to the activity of study?

On his MindBlog, Derek Bownds states that concentration is the issue of our time(s) (sic). He mentions a NYT article by John Tierney on the science of concentration. A clip from this is below:

"You can lead a miserable life by obsessing on problems. You can drive yourself crazy trying to multi-task and answer every e-mail message instantly...Or you can recognize your brain’s finite capacity for processing information, accentuate the positive and achieve the satisfactions of... the focused life."

With attention and concentration such critical issues in the production functions for study, research and a whole range of activities that feed into the knowledge economy, I have taken a renewed interest in mindfulness - something which Michael has mentioned on the blog. A number of times. Liam also linked to a lecture by Kabat-Zinn on mindfulness - originally presented to staff at Google.

The framework I am most interested in, however, is what this blog post is essentially about - the economics of attention. Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. It's not new - Herbert Simon was perhaps the first person to articulate the concept of attention economics when he wrote:

"...in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it" (Simon 1971, p. 40-41).

Simon noted that many designers of information systems incorrectly represented their design problem as information scarcity rather than attention scarcity, and as a result they built systems that excelled at providing more and more information to people, when what was really needed were systems that excelled at filtering out unimportant or irrelevant information (Simon 1996, p. 143-144). We have such systems now - you can skip the ads on TV if you want! You can also block out email spam.

"Attention economics" today is largely concerned with the problem of getting consumers to engage with advertising (sellers compete for scarce attention). However, it would be worth developing a stream in attention economics that relates to academic production functions, the knowledge economy, health behaviour and well-being. A final thought: we should all be careful with those little drops of dopamine. And bear in mind that business is going to get your attention using style, for style is what competes for our attention amidst the din and deluge of the new media (see Richard A Lanham - The Economics of Attention).


Simon, H. A. (1971), "Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World", written at Baltimore, MD, in Martin Greenberger, Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, The Johns Hopkins Press, ISBN 0-8018-1135-X.

6 comments:

Martin Ryan said...

The July issue of Neuropsychologia offers "yet another article", by Dye et al., on how video games enhance attentional resources. Derek Bownds flagged this on his MindBlog: http://tinyurl.ie/1051

Abstract below:

Previous research suggests that action video game play improves attentional resources, allowing gamers to better allocate their attention across both space and time. In order to further characterize the plastic changes resulting from playing these video games, we administered the Attentional Network Test (ANT) to action game players and non-playing controls aged between 7 and 22 years. By employing a mixture of cues and flankers, the ANT provides measures of how well attention is allocated to targets as a function of alerting and orienting cues, and to what extent observers are able to filter out the influence of task irrelevant information flanking those targets. The data suggest that action video game players of all ages have enhanced attentional skills that allow them to make faster correct responses to targets, and leaves additional processing resources that spill over to process distractors flanking the targets.

Martin Ryan said...

It is also worth considering how non-cognitive ability traits such as persistence, determination and self-discipline (more broadly conscientiousness) may be the driving forces behind how attentive use of time acquires knowledge and sifts through information. With this framework we can get from micro-level personality traits right up to the macro-dynamics in the Information and Knowledge Economies. Would a nationwide program to enhance non-cognitive ability traits and improve attention have knock-on effects on our economic performance?

Martin Ryan said...

Another point worth considering is that (here and now at least) information and knowledge are not really really scarce resources. At least not for individuals who have access to information (you need broadband) and knowledge (you need education). You also need time and non-cog ability (or good attention) to acquire knowledge and use information.

A good way of thinking about this is that individuals in some third-world countries may have:

(i) low levels of education (hence it's hard to acquire knowledge)

(ii) minimal access to technology -importantly broadband (hence it's hard to get information)

(iii) very busy schedules collecting water and farming (hence it's hard to allocate time to learning and research)

Attention, of course, becomes more of an issue once all of the above are addressed. In some sense, attention-problems are characteristic of a developed technological economy.

Martin Ryan said...

More on the (web-based) attention economy from Michael Goldhaber (from 1997!) is available here:

http://tinyurl.ie/1052

Its from the the point of view of the seller (who needs scarce attention) rather than the buyer (who has scarce attention but needs to get information/entertainment).

I didn't consider the search for entertainment explicitly in the main post; but this mirrors the search for information (technically, entertainment could be viewed as a sub-set of information, I suppose).

The First Monday journal (which published the Goldhaber article above) is worth checking out. They also published the recent work by Eszter Hargittai on Facebook use and academic achievement.

Kevin Denny said...

"Maybe [Facebook users] are just prone to distraction. Maybe they are just procrastinators". Sounds like the author can't make up his mind...

Kevin Denny said...

As for little drops of dopamine: a clinical psychologist I knew told me such treatments in patients with Parkinson's sometimes caused hypersexuality.