Attention Cycle and Climate Change
Our attention behaves like a sinusoidal wave that prevents effective and sustained actions on important issues such as climate change
A recent blog by a fellow Medium blogger caught my “attention” and reminded me of an old research article I read a few years back. The blog post describes how everything moves fast — from quick rise and fall of popular hashtags on social media to the duration a book or movie remains best-seller — which academic researchers assume a symptom of declining attention span. This dilution in our ability to focus longer than a few minutes is largely because of increasing information production and consumption, which never stops quenching our brain’s constant thirst for stimulation.
What is short-attention span?
In the popular article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid” and a subsequent book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”, Nicholas Carr claims that a constant distraction is reducing our ability to learn and remember by rewiring the brain itself. Scientists are still debating how digital technologies are affecting our brain and whether the physiological changes, if any, are irreversible.
Therefore, instead of assuming it as a neurological disease, researchers interpret short attention span as distributing our fixed attention ‘budget’ to numerous activities rather than only a few. Such practice substantially reduces the attention allocation for a single task, which has many negative effects. For example, one bad effect is poor reading comprehension when we only skim through a book (or an online article) rather than diving into the mind of the writer. While a quick reading allows us to cover more “ground”, it prevents us from measuring the “depth” of the content. This style of reading of reading or learning only gives us an illusion of learning (also called infotainment) at best and often leads to the inadequate understanding of complex concepts.
While such behavioral outcomes wouldn’t be as serious if their negative impacts remained limited to few individuals and did not influence the society’s collective consciousness and action. Unfortunately, the society is made of individuals and when each of us suffers independently, the aggregate effect on the society amplifies these isolated negative consequences for everyone.
Experts have long noted the consequences of short attention span of individuals on the society at large, particularly relating to environmental issues. In a quite popular article titled “ Up and down with ecology: the ‘Issue-Attention Cycle’” published in 1970s, Anthony Downs highlighted that constant distraction was one of the factors that prevented the public from taking serious action on social issues. The author defined five stages of attention that can be applicable to many social issues, including environmental problems:
- The pre-problem: the problem exists, but only experts and certain special interests care about the problem.
- Alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm: a series of events attracts public attention to the issue and awareness about its seriousness. The discovery is followed by overwhelming optimism that we can quickly solve any problem and overcome any challenges. The author also acknowledges that the unlike many cultures, which understand that certain problems cannot always be completely solved, the US culture rooted in the great American tradition perceives many problems as “exogenous” to the society itself. Such an outlook creates a widespread belief that solving a problem only requires us to put sufficient efforts into it and does not have to bring“any fundamental re-ordering of the society”.
- Realizing the cost of progress: this stage highlights the intrinsic links between the factors causing the problem and the implications of addressing (removing those factors) in order to solve the problem. This stage captures the gradual realization that the solution will require significant resources (money) and changes in the societal arrangements that currently benefit millions. It means that implementing a solution will need significant sacrifices from many, if not all, people. In fact, some groups get the most benefits while other pay the cost from the current arrangement. This also reveals a bitter truth that some will have to give up so that others can also enjoy the benefits as we fix the problem. Anthony Downs further describes how the US public has unwavering faith in technological progress to address the problem because the technological growth does not ask the public to give up the lifestyle arrangements that are contributing to the problem.
- Gradual decline of intense public interest: after realizing how difficult and costly it is to solve the problem, people tend to lose interest. The overall feelings can be categorized into three groups: a) feeling discouraged b) feeling threatened and trying to suppress the issue c) getting bored. While people experience one or more of these feelings and try to navigate their lives, often, a new issue enters Stage 2 and seeks public attention and takes over the public discourse into a new direction. And the cycle begins again.
- The post-problem stage: this stage the problem has been put into cold storage, with intermittent re-occurrences in the media every now and then. However, depending on the steps taken in the previous stages, all hope is still not lost. If the temporary euphoria and attention ends up creating dedicated institutions (e.g, Environmental Protection Agency) and laws (Clean Air and Water Acts), those responses will remain effective even without any active public interests and continue to address the problem.
Anthony Downs describes three characteristics of a problem that goes to such issue-attention cycle: 1) it materially affects only a small fraction (10–15%) of population, so people are unlikely to be constantly reminded about it 2) the structures creating the problem provide significant benefits to people and any efforts to solve it will threaten vested interests 3) the problem has no “exciting” qualities that can sustain public interest and a frequent coverage bores the public, who often prefers more entertainment (weather news, sports, celebrity, etc.).
It is quite obvious that climate change possesses all the three qualities and has often go through the attention cycle, mainly during election years or whenever there is an international summit (e.g., COPs).
However, it is the third characteristics that is related to our attention span that further diminishes our collective inability to formulate an effective response to climate change. The challenge with being continuously aware of climate change problem is that many of us get bored with it and change the “channel”, which encourages media organization to show what people want to see. So, after a sporadic coverage following any disaster, most media coverage shifts from climate change to something that is more entertaining to the public. The truth is climate change is indeed boring since it slow and the progress will only be visible after decades, not weeks. As long as people do not realize it, the climate change will continue to fall into the trap of attention cycle.
What can we do about it?
Though information overload is a cause, it is rather a forbidden fruit. The main root cause of the problem is us who devours the fruit. Slow progress on climate change issue has many causes, yet I feel we as individuals are failing to separate noise from signal, and so is our society as whole. Our inability to focus longer has been for decades diluting our ability to comprehend climate problem and the root causes of inaction.
Nonetheless, we still have some hope. Studies show that we can train our brain to ignore distractions and focus on task at hand, but it can only happen if we actively overcome our temptations to seek and participate in these distractions. If majority of us manage to do so, the combined effect will reflect at macro-level and we might soon see more positive action at societal level.