How to get people to pay attention

by Dorian Minors

July 29, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


You can’t process everything that you can sense. It’s not possible. Think of all the things that are coming in from outside. The sounds, smells, sights. It would be like drinking from a firehose. We’ve got to have a way to limit that information;…

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You can’t process everything that you can sense. It’s not possible. Think of all the things that are coming in from outside. The sounds, smells, sights. It would be like drinking from a firehose. We’ve got to have a way to limit that information; to cull it to the most salient (important) features. The ones that will keep you alive. The ones that will help you achieve your goals. And our brains do this fabulously. Think about this. Feel the pressure of your butt on your seat (or if you’re standing and reading this, your feet on the floor). As soon as you concentrate on it, you can feel it. But prior to that, it was cut out in favour of you reading and processing this (and listening out for your boss, so you can alt-tab before they see you aren’t doing your work). You can’t process everything at all times.

The classic selective attention test

Consider this:


Half of all people that watched that video (at least) didn’t notice that a gorilla wanders along, pauses and beats its chest halfway through. And why? Because the video gets you to do a complex task. The brain shuts out everything that it thinks is unimportant (in the case, the black t-shirted team, so you don’t notice the dark of the gorilla).

So how does it work?

Well, in the 1950s, Don Broadbent decided that it worked on a filter basis. Everything comes in and there’s a sensory buffer that catches all the information. Then, our brains decide from the ‘catch’ what’s important enough to get through based on the most important physical characteristics. Everything else dies a quick death (from our sensory memory). But very quickly, we realised that this ‘filter’ model couldn’t account for the ‘cocktail party effect’, which essentially refers to the fact that no matter what we’re paying attention to, we’ll always switch our attention if our name is called (the effect was tested in an part environment, and they found that even when engaged in conversation, with lots of other conversations going on around them, a participant would get distracted by their name being called). So Anne Treisman came up with the Attenuation model. Basically, she thought there might be a sort of volume control on our attention. Everything important was allowed in and the rest was attenuated (turned down) and is only turned back up again if our brain thinks it’s important.

Our attention threshold

But what’s interesting about her model is that she suggests that our brains have a threshold information has to reach. If something is particularly intense (maybe it’s loud, or particularly colourful, or it’s in line with what we’re trying to do for example), it’ll be let through at normal volume. Everything else is turned down. However, somethings are never turned down, the threshold is much lower for them. Our names, or the words ‘help’ or ‘fire’ for example, will come in over all the other stuff coming in.

Last word

In reality, the theories of attention get far more detailed than that. But the principles remain the same. What we focus on is what’s important. Our brains use a cognitive volume control to make sure that we aren’t overwhelmed by the information. But somethings never get turned down. So:

  • When you’re trying to get and keep someone’s attention, make sure you utilise the things that are salient (important) to them. Keep things focused on their goals and needs, or speak a little louder for example (or worst case, just use their name)
  • If you struggle to attend to things, you need to teach your brain what’s important to you. Chances are, it’s turning down things that you’d prefer it not to. This is where things like mindfulness and meditation can come in.
  • Be aware that it’s pretty likely that a lot of information is getting scanned by our brain, even if it is at a lower ‘volume’. This presents a challenge because the more going on in your world, the more likely it is that important things will get lost in the maelstrom. Take time to make things simple where you can. Reduce the cognitive load.

You know, our brain likes to generalise what’s important to us. That’s why words like ‘help’ get through, even when it’s not relevant. Our brains make all sorts of generalisations, one of which is like photoshop for the mind. Learn about the halo effect and how it can make you ignore all of someone’s flaws here. Or, you might be interested to know how incompetent people’s brains don’t let information in about how incompetent they are, that’s why some people will always be a pain in your ass. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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