The Power of Paying Attention

Let’s talk about the gorilla in the room.

Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash

Psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris performed a study that has become one of the most famous experiments in psychology.

Subjects were shown a video of six people — three wearing white shirts and three wearing black shirts — passing basketballs around. The folks watching the video were asked to count the number of times the people in the white shirts passed the balls to one another.

You may have seen the video, it’s been watched over 21 million times on YouTube. If you haven’t, I highly recommend you watch it before you continue. It’s only a minute long.

Did you see or miss it?

The gorilla?

I did miss it when I first watched the video a few years ago. The research shows that about half the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla.

It’s a really interesting study. And the original takeaway was 1. we are unaware of most things going on around us, and 2. we have no idea that we are missing so much.

Both conclusions are true, of course.

But the main, more powerful lesson of the study has often been missed or overlooked, which is:

The Power of Paying Attention

I hope you didn’t feel bad if you had missed the gorilla while you focus on what you were instructed to focus on — to count the number of passes by the guys in white.

I certainly didn’t feel bad that I missed seeing the gorilla the first time. Why?

Because I realised the main lesson and the key conclusion of the experiment should be:

Paying attention is powerful — and costly. You’ll often see/get what you pay attention to. It’s impossible to pay attention to everything. So, allocate your attention consciously.

Our attention is limited and always has a sort of opportunity cost. For instance, the cost you paid for keeping your attention on the guys in white passing the ball, was to miss the person in the gorilla suit — one that spent as much as 9 seconds on the screen, facing the camera and even thumped its chest before walking out!

Attention — A More Valuable Currency

We know all about money. We know it is valuable. We want some of it. We frown when its frittered away or wasted. We work very hard to earn as much of it as we can. We try very hard to keep as much of it as we earn.

But what if we treat attention the same way we treat money in our wallet or bank account — a limited, valuable resource that must be spent/allocated wisely?

Because that’s exactly what it is.

“Pay attention!” used to be a command to keep attention on something. Not anymore. “Pay attention” is now as well literal, in the same way that you “pay money.” It incurs a heavy cost, which we must be honest enough to think and talk about if we want to achieve anything of note.

There’s more information today than any of us can expect to cope with in one lifetime. Smartphones, Twitter, television, magazine, infinite scrolling, 24/7 news, email, blogs, big data, news feed, ads all mainstays of the modern age. Is having this much information all good and no bad. All benefit and no downside?

The obvious answer is No.

Herbert Simon observed:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of the recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

The more we grow in information, the poorer we get in attention. Our attention is spread thin trying to cope with the deluge. Which can’t be a good thing.

Meta-attention In a Noisy World

The lesson here is surely NOT, “pay more attention to all the things around you.” The world is a really noisy place, you can’t possibly do that. The lesson is “Be more conscious what you give your attention to.”

And that would mean you’ll have to say NO a lot. Saying No at every turn, to all the things that are unworthy of our attention. As Steve Jobs put it:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Going back to the “Invisible gorilla” experiment, we can decode its key lessons:

The world is the room. The people passing the basketballs are everything else going on — 7 billion people in the world creating things, experiencing things, and consuming things. But, as far as YOUR attention is concerned, the gorilla is what’s important. The gorilla is the main thing. It’s what you mustn’t miss, in spite of the distractions. It’s what you must fight for. It’s your goal, so to speak.

Do you also realise there was a lot more people passing the basketballs than there is a gorilla. The gorilla was outnumbered 6 to 1. The world has a lot more distraction for you than you’ll reasonably be able to cope with in a lifetime. You’ll never be short of things to distract you. And its why the winners in this economy are the ones who identify the things that matters at every point in time and find a way to train their attention and focus on that, while saying No to everything else.

It’s a world where our attention is increasingly going to the highest bidder, therefore, seeing it for the limited and costly resource it is, and using it consciously as we would our money is the challenge we all face.

The challenge is a daily fight to emerge at the end of the day having surmounted the distraction trying to lure us away, to make us miss the gorilla.

The bottom-line is: to win, we have to give more attention to what’s taking our attention.

Research Scientist | Entrepreneur | Teacher | Engineer driven by a deep curiosity about everything.

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