Saving our Attention, with William James

My coffee is warm and fragrant today and my laptop fully charged. All is in place for a productive morning, yet there is a problem: my mind wants to wander into other things.

For me it’s the news that tempts me, and today it could be big. Due to a strange quirk of Australian politics, cabinet members can eject the prime minister at will. So today, I really need to log in to find out who is leading the country. For me politics is an irresistible attention grabber.

Internal conflict: I’m trying to change my habit of news reading in the morning. And according to William James (see earlier post), I should not let anything stand in my way.

On the other hand something pulls me towards the Internet. To what extent is this in my control?  “Changing the habit requires an effort of attention” said James, and he was so right…

As James explained: “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.”

Attention as design

Last week we pondered James’ views on habits and what they mean for products designed to become habits. These products don’t require user attention, which has some obvious benefits (you can multitask), and some risks (you can multitask, and your behavior can be manipulated under your nose).

William James realized the significance of these pros and cons. On the one hand He acknowledged the value of reducing the attention required to perform common tasks as essential for survival. Thanks to the fact that eating, walking and typing have become habits, I can can eat while I walk and type (albeit, with mild repercussions).

However, he also stressed that since we are only awake for a certain number of hours a day attention is limited. That is why we need to free our attention from certain tasks in order to pay attention to others.  Attention is a game of trade-offs and constraints – in other words, a design space.

We design our subjective experience through attention.

Or as James put it: “Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind – without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.”

The six types of attention

We realize how valuable attention is when we need it to do something we consider important. But attention is not just important to the individual, it is valuable to others. Teachers and parents need their kids‘ attention. Managers need their employees’ attention. Friends and family need attention. Dogs, cats and ferrets need attention. Marketers need attention.

If all of these people need our attention, how do we choose?  How do we decide to “withdraw from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” How can we become competent designers of our experience and our selves?  To answer this, James classified six different types of attention into three groups:

  1. Sensorial (that targets the senses)
  2. Intellectual (targets ideas)
  3. Immediate (when something is intrinsically interesting)
  4. Derived (when something is interesting by association).
  5. Passive (non-voluntary & effortless)
  6.  Active (voluntary).

A popular target for marketers is passive immediate sensorial attention which according to James “appeals to some of our normal congenital impulses and has a directly exciting quality”

Eye tracking, A/B testing, focus groups, are all part of a toolkit that help marketers win this kind of primal, hard-to-resist, attention. Big data is the mega-tool now driving the “attention economy”.

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads … That sucks.” – Jeff Hammerbacher (Early Facebook employee)

Attention as control

But is “voluntary attention a resultant or a force?” asked James. This was for him a fundamental moral question. Is attention driven by us, or is it an effect of the environment? (and therefore something we can design for). Are Facebook & Google really driving our attention, or are we in control, or are there other explanations for our co-dependent relationship?

As expected of a philosopher, James did not have a short answer…

“As in the chapter on the Will we shall see that volition is nothing but attention; when we believe that our autonomy in the midst of nature depends on our not being pure effect, but a cause … we must admit that the question, whether attention involves such a principle of spiritual activity or not, is metaphysical as well as psychological, and is well worthy of all the pains we can bestow on its solution. It is in fact the pivotal question of metaphysics…”


Social media is giving us tools to understand this relationship better. A growing body of research shows different ways in which social media affects our behavior. The most obvious is click-bait.

Within the different forms of click-bait, “moral outrage” expressions are among the most pernicious.

Moral norm violations cause people to experience moral outrage and to express it via gossip, shaming and punishment.
– M. J. Crockett

Moral outrage click-bait is widespread on social media and leaving a trail of negativity  in its wake. The evidence compiled by M.J. Crockett, a Yale University Psychologist, indicates that:

  1. it is easier to express moral outrage online than offline where one can comment quickly or simply retweet available content
  2. These expressions of outrage often receive positive feedback at random intervals, aka. habit-forming variable rewards.
  3. Online expressions have a low risk of retaliation, so people are less likely to self-regulate based on fear.
  4. Online expressions are less inhibited by empathy. Since we don’t immediately notice the pain inflicted on others, we are less likely to self-regulate based on empathy.
  5. Taking the high ground, increases the person’s moral reputation with those in her social group.
  6. They can have the positive effect of allowing disempowered individuals and groups to hold bad actors accountable.

Data on how people interact with social media (readily available to social media companies) could help us understand what aspects of click-bait drives our attention and where to. For example, Crockett has produced a model to evaluate the impact of social media on behaviors, and arguably, on the wellbeing of its users.

As predicted by James, emotional content is effective stimuli. According to an article published in PNAS (no, the National Academy of Science was not considering the general public when they named their Proceedings, or were they?) a key to click-bait is emotion words. In the case of moral outrage:

“Emotional words in messages increased their diffusion by a factor of 20% for each additional word.”

Attention as free will

Each day our digital experience is awash in primal attention grabbing – emotionally-loaded, exaggerated, and triggering content.  Whether its war, financial crisis, violent crime, Trump’s latest tweets or the latest diet fad, all the triggers mentioned earlier are salient. There are techniques for writing a story or a headline to trigger more fear, anxiety, or moral outrage and this wins attention.

Readers who don’t pay attention are more likely to click on manipulated headlines that deploy sensationalization, scare-mongering or sexualized stories.  These readers will distribute the finite resource of their attention without awareness.  They surrender their agency–their “free will”.

“The essential achievement of the will, in short, when it is most voluntary,’ is to attend to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind. Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of will.”  – William James

The focus of attention by its very nature, being the essence of will, defines the way a person decides or initiates any action. To James, controlling a person’s attention is equivalent to controlling the person.


To what extent is the attention economy
a fight to retain control over our very selves?

  How can we design our subjective experience
through careful attention to how we “spend our attention budget”?

If our focus is a matter of probability,
how can we increase the chances that we’ll attend to things we value?

We’d love your thoughts…


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