Attention: the scarcest resource

Herbert Simon, prescient in this as in so many things, was one of the first people to highlight the attention scarcity problem:

“…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.

From Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World, in Martin Greenberger,

(1971 pp. 40–41).

The attention problem seems all the more acute post-financial crisis – why, when so many warning signals were available, and so much information about financial markets, did so few people foresee the crash? Not surprisingly, all thoughtful economists are now re-evaluating the standard assumptions about how people make economic decisions, in the light of what we can learn from psychologists and cognitive scientists. (This includes me, despite my blast in the previous post against the fashionable adoption of behavioural economics by anti-economists.)

The lessons look set to be fascinating, as this summary (pdf) of a recent workshop held at the Toulouse School of Economics shows. It’s well worth a look if you’re interested in this overlap between cognitive science and economics.

The researchers described the phenomenon of ‘inattentional blindness’, whereby people looking at a scene fail to see the obvious (the best-known example is the ‘invisible gorilla’ referenced in the title, and in a recent book called

by Chris Chabris and Dan Simons). ‘Seeing’ is not a matter of looking at an internal representation of the outside world, but rather depends on an active cognitive process of paying attention to certain things. The structure of the brain, whereby neurons at different levels compete with each other to move up to higher levels of the brain, determines what we pay attention to.

One consequence of this inbuilt scarcity is that attention can be guided by setting appropriate goals and stimuli. This can apply to helping an air traffic controller focus attention by suitable colour coding of visual screen displays – or potentially to helping financial regulators monitor developments in financial markets.

The workshop also heard some tantalising results on online advertising, viz:

  • Subliminal advertising and suggestion is ineffective;
  • Online advertising does work, with the amounts advertisers pay for slots at different locations on the screen a measure of the value of attention;
  • Offline ads are not more expensive than online ads, comparing the price of attention, as people spend many more minutes reading a newspaper or magazine than they do reading online;
  • Targeted online ads are often less effective than generic advertising;
  • Junk email could unravel the market for direct email advertising, but the collapse of the market could be averted by a message tax.

Also intriguing is the fact that the model of the brain currently accepted by the cognitive scientists features ‘winner-takes-all’ competition among neurons, a candidate for the kind of constrained optimisation techniques we use in economics.

The Invisible Gorilla (courtesy of Chris Chabris)


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