Today’s world screams for attention. Research shows that the number of external stimuli in our daily lives has increased fivefold since the eighties. The internet, for example, started from only one website in 1991, whereas now it holds almost 2 billion websites and millions of new items are posted on the web everyday. The physical world also offers increasingly more stimuli. In the U.S. in the 1990s, for example, there used to be 7,000 items in a grocery store, today there are 40,000 to choose from. There is simply too much stuff, writes The Atlantic, for us to make good choices.

It is common knowledge that the attention economy is bad for our ability to focus. However, neuroscientist Mark Tichelaar argues that it is not the mere increase in stimuli, but rather the way we deal with the overload that leads to the loss of concentration. Our brain is well prepared to face multiple stimuli, but we have to discipline ourselves not to switch too often between sources of information or between tasks in order to keep focus. He notes that this will cause a temporarily IQ drop of at least ten points and it takes more effort to focus on the new task again.

Currently, we have not organized our world in accordance with how our attention works in the most optimal manner. Tichelaar points to the way our office spaces are designed. These modern offices are often open spaces in order to facilitate communication and collaboration. This however does not benefit our productivity as we are constantly distracted by what is happening around us. Given the ever-increasing number of stimuli and its negative consequences for our ability to focus, our education system could invest more in developing skills to navigate the attention economy too. As we wrote before, educating vital skills for the future should include skills to think for yourself (creative thinking) and being able to analyze (critical thinking) information, apps, pop-ups or push messages that persuade us to think and do things we originally did not intended.

Implications:

  • If we fail to learn from the increasing body of scientific research on how attention is distributed and if we fail to adjust our work and education environment accordingly, productivity will be further limited by concentration problems.
  • As long as we are not able to sufficiently manage the way we deal with the growing number of external stimuli, they will have a negative and even segregating effect on society. In larger cities, noise pollution and stimuli will be left to those who cannot afford the luxury of silence and calm environments. This might therefore further cause inequality between urban citizens, since only the ones who can afford are less exposed.
  • As tech companies are further targeting our attention and as big tech platforms are calibrated to reward information that is often misleading or polarizing, prioritizing clicks over quality of information (e.g. dark patterns), a new risk is emerging: infocalypse
  • As we cannot learn how to fence of the information overload in a stimuli rich environment we will increasingly use the coping mechanism of information avoidance.

The Risk Radar is a monthly research report in which we monitor and qualify the world’s biggest risks to watch. Our updates are based on the estimated likelihood and impact of these risks. This report provides an additional ‘risk flection’ from a political, social, economic and technological perspective.

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