The Anatomy of Attention

How digital life is transforming our focus and cognition.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

In PR, we always seek the atten­tion of publics.

But how does atten­tion work?
Are there dif­fer­ent types of atten­tion?
What does sci­ence say about attention?

Here we go:

Different Types of Attention

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The Anatomy of Attention

Attention is an essen­tial com­pon­ent of pub­lic relations:

  • An organ­isa­tion, starved of atten­tion, trust, and loy­alty, is com­pelled to wage a per­petu­al struggle for its con­tin­ued existence.

We all seem to crave atten­tion in some form or another:

People want to be loved; fail­ing that admired; fail­ing that feared; fail­ing that hated and des­pised. They want to evoke some sort of sen­ti­ment. The soul shud­ders before obli­vi­on and seeks con­nec­tion at any price.”
— Hjalmar Söderberg (1869−1941), Swedish author

But what con­sti­tutes ‘atten­tion’?

Attention is a com­plex, real neur­al archi­tec­ture (‘RNA’) mod­el that integ­rates vari­ous cog­nit­ive mod­els and brain cen­ters to per­form tasks like visu­al search.”
Source: Trends in cog­nit­ive sci­ences 1Shipp, S. (2004). The brain cir­cuitry of atten­tion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 223 – 230. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​t​i​c​s​.​2​0​0​4​.​0​3​.​004

Each of the below terms refers to a spe­cif­ic aspect or type of atten­tion (“men­tal band­width”), a com­plex cog­nit­ive pro­cess. 2Schweizer, K., Moosbrugger, H., & Goldhammer, F. (2005). The struc­ture of the rela­tion­ship between atten­tion and intel­li­gence. Intelligence, 33(6), 589 – 611. … Continue read­ing

Let’s explore dif­fer­ent types of attention:

  • Alertness. This is the state of being watch­ful and ready to respond. It’s the most basic form of atten­tion, rep­res­ent­ing our read­i­ness to per­ceive and pro­cess inform­a­tion from the environment.
  • Sustained atten­tion. This involves focus­ing on a spe­cif­ic task or stim­u­lus over a pro­longed peri­od. It’s cru­cial for tasks that require ongo­ing con­cen­tra­tion, like read­ing or driving.
  • Focused atten­tion. This refers to the abil­ity to con­cen­trate on one par­tic­u­lar stim­u­lus or task while ignor­ing oth­ers. It’s the abil­ity to focus nar­rowly on a single thing.
  • Attentional switch­ing. Also known as task switch­ing or cog­nit­ive flex­ib­il­ity, this involves shift­ing focus from one task to anoth­er. It’s crit­ic­al for mul­ti­task­ing and adapt­ing to chan­ging demands or priorities.
  • Divided atten­tion. This is the abil­ity to pro­cess two or more responses or react to mul­tiple tasks sim­ul­tan­eously. It’s often tested by ask­ing people to per­form two tasks sim­ul­tan­eously, like listen­ing to a con­ver­sa­tion while writ­ing.
  • Attention accord­ing to the super­vis­ory atten­tion­al sys­tem. This concept, derived from cog­nit­ive psy­cho­logy, refers to a high­er-level con­trol sys­tem that reg­u­lates the alloc­a­tion of atten­tion, par­tic­u­larly in situ­ations requir­ing plan­ning or decision-making.
  • Attention as inhib­i­tion. This aspect of atten­tion involves sup­press­ing irrel­ev­ant or dis­tract­ing stim­uli. It’s a cru­cial com­pon­ent of focused atten­tion and self-regulation.
  • Spatial atten­tion. This type of atten­tion focuses on a spe­cif­ic area with­in the visu­al field. It’s like a spot­light that enhances inform­a­tion pro­cessing in a par­tic­u­lar location.
  • Attention as plan­ning. This per­spect­ive views atten­tion as a resource that needs to be alloc­ated effi­ciently, espe­cially in com­plex tasks requir­ing stra­tegic plan­ning and organization.
  • Interference. In the con­text of atten­tion, inter­fer­ence refers to the pro­cess by which irrel­ev­ant inform­a­tion or dis­trac­tions impede the effi­ciency of cog­nit­ive processing.
  • Attention as arous­al. This con­siders atten­tion in the con­text of the gen­er­al level of alert­ness or arous­al. It’s about the read­i­ness of the brain to engage with stim­uli or tasks.
  • Attention accord­ing to the assess­ment tra­di­tion. This refers to meas­ur­ing and eval­u­at­ing atten­tion­al pro­cesses, often in clin­ic­al or edu­ca­tion­al set­tings, to identi­fy atten­tion defi­cits or disorders.

Each type of atten­tion plays a cru­cial role in how we inter­act with and pro­cess inform­a­tion from our envir­on­ment, and under­stand­ing these dif­fer­ent aspects is key in fields like psy­cho­logy, neur­os­cience, and education.

There’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
— Oscar Wilde

Learn more: The Anatomy of Attention

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Attention and the Online Brain

The Internet can alter our cog­ni­tion, affect­ing atten­tion, memory, and social cog­ni­tion, with poten­tial brain changes.”
Source: World Psychiatry 3Firth, J., Torous, J., Stubbs, B., Firth, J., Steiner, G., Smith, L., Alvarez-Jimenez, M., Gleeson, J., Vancampfort, D., Armitage, C., & Sarris, J. (2019). The “online brain”: how the … Continue read­ing

In the rap­idly evolving digit­al age, the way we pro­cess inform­a­tion is sig­ni­fic­antly trans­formed. The rise of the inter­net and its ever-chan­ging stream of inform­a­tion have led to a notice­able shift in our atten­tion­al capacities. 

A study pub­lished in the National Center for Biotechnology Information high­lights this trend, emphas­iz­ing how the mul­ti­tude of online media sources vies for our atten­tion, often at the expense of our abil­ity to con­cen­trate for exten­ded peri­ods. 4Firth, J., Torous, J., Stubbs, B., Firth, J. A., Steiner, G. Z., Smith, L., Gleeson, J., Vancampfort, D., Armitage, C. J., & Sarris, J. (2019). The “online brain”: How the Internet may be … Continue read­ing

This phe­nomen­on, some­times called the ‘online brain’, raises crit­ic­al ques­tions about the long-term effects of digit­al media on cog­nit­ive func­tions, includ­ing memory and focus. 

Narrowing of Collective Attention Span

The human brain’s atten­tion sys­tem has evolved over time, with genet­ic vari­ations and exper­i­ence play­ing a role in indi­vidu­al dif­fer­ences in atten­tion­al effi­ciency.”
Source: Annual review of neur­os­cience 5Petersen, S., & Posner, M. (2012). The atten­tion sys­tem of the human brain. Annual review of neur­os­cience, 35, 73 – 89. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​4​6​/​a​n​n​u​r​e​v​-​n​e​u​r​o​-​0​6​2​111 – 150525

The broad­er implic­a­tions of our inter­ac­tion with digit­al media are fur­ther under­scored by a study in Nature Communications, which reveals a nar­row­ing of our col­lect­ive atten­tion span. 6Abundance of inform­a­tion nar­rows our col­lect­ive atten­tion span. (2019, April 15). ScienceDaily. https://​www​.sci​en​cedaily​.com/​r​e​l​e​a​s​e​s​/​2​0​1​9​/​0​4​/​1​9​0​4​1​5​0​8​1​9​5​9​.​htm

This phe­nomen­on is not just con­fined to social media; it’s a trend observed across vari­ous domains, sug­gest­ing a wide­spread cul­tur­al shift in how we con­sume and pro­cess information. 

The study’s find­ings are a wake-up call to busi­nesses and con­tent cre­at­ors, indic­at­ing that cap­tur­ing and main­tain­ing an audi­ence’s atten­tion is becom­ing more challenging. 

This shift neces­sit­ates a rethink in how we design and deliv­er con­tent, ensur­ing it’s not only enga­ging but also cap­able of hold­ing the increas­ingly fleet­ing atten­tion of our audi­ence.

In the digit­al space, atten­tion is a cur­rency. We earn it. We spend it.”
— Brian Solis

Multi-Tasking Is No-One’s Friend

The gradu­al decline in atten­tion spans, par­tic­u­larly over the last few dec­ades, sig­nals a press­ing chal­lenge for today’s organ­iz­a­tions. Research by Gloria Mark, PhD, from the University of California Irvine, sheds light on how our engage­ments with the inter­net and digit­al devices reshape our focus. 7Mark, G. (2023). Why our atten­tion spans are shrink­ing. American Psychological Association. https://​www​.apa​.org/​n​e​w​s​/​p​o​d​c​a​s​t​s​/​s​p​e​a​k​i​n​g​-​o​f​-​p​s​y​c​h​o​l​o​g​y​/​a​t​t​e​n​t​i​o​n​-​s​p​ans

The con­stant switch­ing between tasks, a beha­viour often neces­sit­ated by digit­al plat­forms, is redu­cing our abil­ity to con­cen­trate and intro­du­cing sig­ni­fic­ant stress into our daily lives. 

Businesses can enhance employ­ee well-being and pro­ductiv­ity by fos­ter­ing envir­on­ments encour­age focused work and lim­it­ing the reli­ance on con­stant digit­al multitasking. 

Such envir­on­ments could involve des­ig­nated ‘focus hours’ free from digit­al inter­rup­tions, or train­ing ses­sions that enhance employ­ees’ skills in man­aging digit­al tools effect­ively, ensur­ing a bal­anced and healthy inter­ac­tion with tech­no­logy in the workplace.

Our Attention Is Not Well-Understood

Despite the grow­ing con­cern over the impact of social media and the fast-paced news cycle on our atten­tion spans, a gap in empir­ic­al data per­sists. This lack of con­crete evid­ence points to the neces­sity for more rig­or­ous research to under­stand the true extent of mass medi­a’s influ­ence on cog­nit­ive func­tions. 8Abundance of inform­a­tion nar­rows our col­lect­ive atten­tion span. (2019, April 15). EurekAlert! https://​www​.eurekalert​.org/​n​e​w​s​-​r​e​l​e​a​s​e​s​/​4​9​0​177

For busi­ness lead­ers, this calls for a cau­tious approach in draw­ing con­clu­sions about the impact of digit­al media on atten­tion spans. Rather than mak­ing hasty decisions based on anec­dot­al evid­ence, there’s a need to base organ­isa­tion­al strategies on sol­id research. 

This could involve col­lab­or­at­ing with aca­dem­ic insti­tu­tions or invest­ing in in-house stud­ies to explore how digit­al media con­sump­tion affects employ­ee per­form­ance and con­sumer behaviour. 

In an era where data-driv­en decision-mak­ing is para­mount, filling this empir­ic­al gap will aid in devel­op­ing more effect­ive busi­ness strategies and con­trib­ute to a broad­er under­stand­ing of per­cep­tion management.


Please sup­port my PR blog by shar­ing it with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: Perception Management

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Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

No one is basing their atti­tudes and beha­viours on real­ity; we’re basing them on our per­cep­tions of real­ity.

Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) pro­posed that our per­cep­tions of real­ity dif­fer from the actu­al real­ity. The real­ity is too vast and too com­plex for any­one to pro­cess. 9Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.

  • One who effect­ively man­ages the per­cep­tions of pub­lics acts as a mor­al legis­lat­or, cap­able of shap­ing atti­tudes and beha­viours accord­ing to the cat­egor­ic­al imperative.

The research on per­cep­tion man­age­ment is focused on how organ­isa­tions can cre­ate a desired repu­ta­tion:

The OPM [Organizational Perception Management] field focuses on the range of activ­it­ies that help organ­isa­tions estab­lish and/​or main­tain a desired repu­ta­tion (Staw et al., 1983). More spe­cific­ally, OPM research has primar­ily focused on two inter­re­lated factors: (1) the tim­ing and goals of per­cep­tion man­age­ment activ­it­ies and (2) spe­cif­ic per­cep­tion man­age­ment tac­tics (Elsbach, 2006).”
Source: Organization Development Journal 10Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87. … Continue read­ing

Today, our per­cep­tions are heav­ily influ­enced by news media and influ­en­cers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, per­cep­tion man­age­ment is more crit­ic­al than ever before.

We are all cap­tives of the pic­ture in our head — our belief that the world we have exper­i­enced is the world that really exists.”
— Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974)

Learn more: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

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PR Resource: The Electronic Age

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The Electronic Age is Here

Human cul­ture is often described based on our access to pro­duc­tion tech­no­lo­gies (i.e. Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age). 

According to Marshall McLuhan and the Toronto School of Communication Theory, a bet­ter ana­lys­is would be to view soci­et­al devel­op­ment based on the prom­in­ence of emer­ging com­mu­nic­a­tions technologies.

Marshall McLuhan - Cambridge University - Digital-First
Marshall McLuhan at Cambridge University, circa 1940.

McLuhan sug­gests divid­ing human civil­isa­tion into four epochs:

  • Oral Tribe Culture. Handwriting marks the begin­ning of the end of the Oral Tribe Culture. The Oral Tribe Culture per­sists but without its former prominence.
  • Manuscript Culture. Printing marks the begin­ning of the end of the Manuscript Culture. The Manuscript Culture per­sists but without its former prominence.
  • Gutenberg Galaxy. Electricity marks the begin­ning of the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy. The Gutenberg Galaxy per­sists but without its former prominence.
  • Electronic Age. Today, we reside in the Electronic Age. Possibly, we haven’t exper­i­enced the begin­ning of this age’s decline yet.

The Gutenberg Galaxy is a land­mark book that intro­duced the concept of the glob­al vil­lage and estab­lished Marshall McLuhan as the ori­gin­al ‘media guru’, with more than 200,000 cop­ies in print.”
Source: Modern Language Review 11McLuhan, M. (1963). The Gutenberg galaxy: the mak­ing of typo­graph­ic man. Modern Language Review, 58, 542. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​2​3​0​7​/​3​7​1​9​923

As a PR pro­fes­sion­al and lin­guist, I sub­scribe to the concept of the Electronic Age. My main ana­lys­is point is that soci­ety is unlikely to revert to the Gutenberg Galaxy.

Thus, digit­al-first is the way for pub­lic rela­tions, too.

Read also: Digital-First is the Way

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PR Resource: Social Group Sizes

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Typical Social Group Sizes

How many social con­nec­tions you you com­fort­ably sus­tain? According to the social brain hypo­thes­is, lim­its exist. 12Zhou WX, Sornette D, Hill RA, Dunbar RI. Discrete hier­arch­ic­al organ­iz­a­tion of social group sizes. Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Feb 22;272(1561):439 – 44.

The ‘social brain hypo­thes­is’ for the evol­u­tion of large brains in prim­ates has led to evid­ence for the coe­volu­tion of neo­cor­tic­al size and social group sizes, sug­gest­ing that there is a cog­nit­ive con­straint on group size that depends, in some way, on the volume of neur­al mater­i­al avail­able for pro­cessing and syn­thes­iz­ing inform­a­tion on social rela­tion­ships.”
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 13Zhou, X., Sornette, D., Hill, R. A., & M. Dunbar, R. I. (2005). Discrete hier­arch­ic­al organ­iz­a­tion of social group sizes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 272(1561), … Continue read­ing

Scientific evid­ence sug­gests that people tend to organ­ise them­selves not in an even dis­tri­bu­tion of group sizes but in dis­crete hier­arch­ic­al social groups of more par­tic­u­lar sizes:

Alas, there seems to be a dis­crete stat­ist­ic­al order in the com­plex chaos of human relationships:

  • Support clique (3 – 5 people)
  • Sympathy group (12 – 20 people)
  • Band (30 – 50 people)
  • Clan (150 people)
  • Megaband (500 people)
  • Tribe (1,000 – 2,000 people)

Such dis­crete scale invari­ance could be related to that iden­ti­fied in sig­na­tures of herd­ing beha­viour in fin­an­cial mar­kets and might reflect a hier­arch­ic­al pro­cessing of social near­ness by human brains.“
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 14Zhou, X., Sornette, D., Hill, R. A., & M. Dunbar, R. I. (2005). Discrete hier­arch­ic­al organ­iz­a­tion of social group sizes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 272(1561), … Continue read­ing

Read also: Group Sizes (The Social Brain Hypothesis)

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ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Shipp, S. (2004). The brain cir­cuitry of atten­tion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 223 – 230. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​t​i​c​s​.​2​0​0​4​.​0​3​.​004
2 Schweizer, K., Moosbrugger, H., & Goldhammer, F. (2005). The struc­ture of the rela­tion­ship between atten­tion and intel­li­gence. Intelligence, 33(6), 589 – 611. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​i​n​t​e​l​l​.​2​0​0​5​.​0​7​.​001
3 Firth, J., Torous, J., Stubbs, B., Firth, J., Steiner, G., Smith, L., Alvarez-Jimenez, M., Gleeson, J., Vancampfort, D., Armitage, C., & Sarris, J. (2019). The “online brain”: how the Internet may be chan­ging our cog­ni­tion. World Psychiatry, 18. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​0​2​/​w​p​s​.​2​0​617
4 Firth, J., Torous, J., Stubbs, B., Firth, J. A., Steiner, G. Z., Smith, L., Gleeson, J., Vancampfort, D., Armitage, C. J., & Sarris, J. (2019). The “online brain”: How the Internet may be chan­ging our cog­ni­tion. World Psychiatry, 18(2), 119 – 129. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​0​2​/​w​p​s​.​2​0​617
5 Petersen, S., & Posner, M. (2012). The atten­tion sys­tem of the human brain. Annual review of neur­os­cience, 35, 73 – 89. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​4​6​/​a​n​n​u​r​e​v​-​n​e​u​r​o​-​0​6​2​111 – 150525
6 Abundance of inform­a­tion nar­rows our col­lect­ive atten­tion span. (2019, April 15). ScienceDaily. https://​www​.sci​en​cedaily​.com/​r​e​l​e​a​s​e​s​/​2​0​1​9​/​0​4​/​1​9​0​4​1​5​0​8​1​9​5​9​.​htm
7 Mark, G. (2023). Why our atten­tion spans are shrink­ing. American Psychological Association. https://​www​.apa​.org/​n​e​w​s​/​p​o​d​c​a​s​t​s​/​s​p​e​a​k​i​n​g​-​o​f​-​p​s​y​c​h​o​l​o​g​y​/​a​t​t​e​n​t​i​o​n​-​s​p​ans
8 Abundance of inform­a­tion nar­rows our col­lect­ive atten­tion span. (2019, April 15). EurekAlert! https://​www​.eurekalert​.org/​n​e​w​s​-​r​e​l​e​a​s​e​s​/​4​9​0​177
9 Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
10 Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87. https://​www​.researchg​ate​.net/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​/​2​8​8​2​9​2​5​9​6​_​O​r​g​a​n​i​z​a​t​i​o​n​a​l​_​p​e​r​c​e​p​t​i​o​n​_​m​a​n​a​g​e​m​e​n​t​_​A​_​f​r​a​m​e​w​o​r​k​_​t​o​_​o​v​e​r​c​o​m​e​_​c​r​i​s​i​s​_​e​v​e​nts
11 McLuhan, M. (1963). The Gutenberg galaxy: the mak­ing of typo­graph­ic man. Modern Language Review, 58, 542. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​2​3​0​7​/​3​7​1​9​923
12 Zhou WX, Sornette D, Hill RA, Dunbar RI. Discrete hier­arch­ic­al organ­iz­a­tion of social group sizes. Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Feb 22;272(1561):439 – 44.
13, 14 Zhou, X., Sornette, D., Hill, R. A., & M. Dunbar, R. I. (2005). Discrete hier­arch­ic­al organ­iz­a­tion of social group sizes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 272(1561), 439 – 444. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​9​8​/​r​s​p​b​.​2​0​0​4​.​2​970
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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