I’d like you to give me your undivided attention. I’d like you to -- but you can’t.
First, I’m probably not interesting enough. Secondly, you no longer live in a world where that’s possible. And third, even if you could, I’m not sure I could handle it. I’m out of practice.
The fact is, our attention is almost never undivided anymore.
Let’s take talking, for example. You know: old-fashioned, face-to-face, sharing the same physical space communication. It’s the one channel that most demands undivided attention. But when is the last time you gave 100% of your attention to a conversation?
I actually had one this past week, and I have to tell you, it unnerved me. I was meeting with a museum curator, and she immediately locked eyes on me and gave me the full breadth of her attention span. I faltered. I couldn’t hold her gaze. As I talked, I scanned the room we were in. It’s probably been years since someone did that to me. And nary a smart phone was in sight.
If this is true when we’re physically present, imagine the challenge in other channels.
Take television, for instance. We don’t watch TV like we used to. When I was growing up, I would be verging on catatonia as I watched the sparks fly between Batman and Catwoman (the Julie Newmar version -- with all due respect to Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether.)
My dad used to call it the “idiot box.” At the time, I thought it was a comment on the quality of programming, but I now know realize he was referring to my mental state. You could have dropped a live badger in my lap, and I wouldn't have batted an eye.
But that’s definitely not how we do things now. A recent study indicates that 177 million Americans have at least one other screen going -- usually a smartphone -- while they watch TV. According to Nielsen, there are only 120 million TV households. That means that 1.48 adults per household are definitely dividing their attention among at least two devices while watching "Game of Thrones."
My daughters and wife are squarely in that camp. Ironically, I now get frustrated because they don’t watch TV the same way I do: catatonically.
Now, I’m sure watching TV does not represent the pinnacle of focused mindfulness. But this could be a canary in a coal mine. We simply don’t allocate undivided attention to anything anymore. We think we’re multitasking, but that’s a myth. We don’t multitask; we mentally fidget. We have the average attention span of a gnat.
What price are we paying for living in this attention-deficit world?
Well, first, there’s the problem when we do decide to communicate. I’ve already stated how unnerving it was for me to have someone’s laser-focused attention. But the opposite is also true. Research studies show our ability to communicate effectively erodes quickly when we’re not getting feedback that the people we’re talking to are actually paying attention to us. Effective communication requires an adequate allocation of attention on both ends; otherwise it spins into a downward spiral.
It’s not just communication that suffers when we're attention-deficit. It's hard to focus on anything when we're continually tempted to pick up our smartphone and check it.
Boise State Professor Nancy Napier suggests a simple test to prove the price of our mythical multitasking. Draw two lines on a piece of paper. While having someone time you, write “I am a great multitasker” on one, then write down the numbers from 1 to 20 on the other.
Next, repeat this same exercise, but this time, alternate between the two: write “I” on the first line, then “1” on the second, then go back and write “am” on the first, “2” on the second, and so on. What’s your time? It will probably be double what it was on the first part.
Every time we try to mentally juggle, we’re more likely to drop a ball.
Attention is important. But we keep allocating thinner and thinner slices of it. Why? A big part is the smartphone probably within arm’s reach of you right now, and something called intermittent variable rewards. Slot machines use this concept -- and that’s probably why slot machines make more money in the U.S. than baseball, movies and theme parks combined.
Tristan Harris, taking technology to task for hijacking our brains, explains: “If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.”
Your smartphone is no different. In this case, the reward is a new email, Facebook post, Instagram photo or Tinder match. Intermittent variable rewards -- together with the fear of missing out -- make your smartphone as addictive as a slot machine.
I’m sorry, but I’m no match for all of that.