The Attention Trap

by Caspar Henderson

“Is the image of a beetle hopelessly attempting to have sex with an empty beer bottle the perfect metaphor for the state of humanity?” The rhetorical question is posed by Peter Limberg and Conor Barnes. In Memetic Tribes and Culture War 2.0, they note than an Ig Nobel Prize (for achievements that first make people laugh then make them think) was awarded for the finding that male Australian jewel beetles are more attracted to brightly coloured, stubby beer bottles than to their female counterparts. In fact, the males find the bottles so attractive that they ignore the females altogether and keep trying to copulate with stubbies until they die in the hot sun or are eaten by ants.

This unfortunate series of events is an example of what is known as an evolutionary trap: adaptive instincts turn maladaptive when exposed to magnified and more attractive versions of an evolved stimulus. Birds, fish, and insects can all fall into it, and in Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose, Deirdre Barrett argues that humans are no less fallible: junk food, pornography, or likes on social media can be artificial triggers that addict us and hijack our agency.


You don’t have to buy into simplistic biological determinism to recognise that humans have weaknesses. In his Pensées, published in 1670, Blaise Pascal wrote:

We do not rest satisfied with the present…So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours, and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more, and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists….

Writing in 2015, Matthew Crawford identified a tendency to become distracted as a major challenge of our times, calling it an obesity of the mind.

Many of us observe compulsive behaviour, dissatisfaction and distraction in others, or experience them ourselves. I’ve had an issue with Twitter, on occasion finding myself logging on dozens of times in a single day without even realising I am doing so. What is going on? I can see the positive sides. Twitter enables me to interact with people I like or find interesting, and find news, analysis and ideas which I value for (I believe) good reasons. But the negatives are clear too. I’m always wanting to know if anyone has noticed me. And there are endless ‘goodies’ I’m hungry for but cannot digest: I read or bookmark far more than I have capacity to absorb or use. Big chunks of time disappear and I’m left feeling a dull sense of guilt and quiet desperation. I am confronted with my own akrasia — that is, a state in which one lacks self-control or acts against one’s better judgment.

I was interested, therefore, when a clever, accomplished and kind friend (incredibly, I have at least one) lent me a copy of Digitial Minimalism by Cal Newport, which will be published in February. Newport wants to help people overcome excessive use of social media. His approach is, I think, worth a little time and attention.

Newport thinks it would be unrealistic and ill-advised for most people to give up digital tools completely. Using them for work and essential personal matters such as childcare is fine. The point, rather, is “digital decluttering.” He advises that for thirty days you stop using social media and other apps for all non-essential purposes, and turn towards “intentional analog activities” — that is, do stuff in the real world that provides you with a sense of meaning. After the thirty days, you can reintroduction Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or whatever back into your life, but now with a sense of self-control that you gained during their absence.

This sounds like advice from a lifestyle column, albeit quite a sensible one, but there is more to it than that. For the bigger point, which Newport nails early in the book, and which for me is the clincher, is that the real issue is “not about usefulness, it’s about autonomy.”

There is, of course, nothing especially new in this insight. But I find it helpful, somehow, to have it framed as Newport frames it, especially when the framing comes along with a recommendation for change that I can actually manage. I found myself cutting back sharply on Twitter right after having read his book, and already feel better for it.

Power — both economic and political — is at the heart of this. Akrasia is derived from the Greek akratos: ’without power’ — in other words, the negation of such limited and fragile powers and liberties as we have in our supposed democracy (in Greek dēmokratía). As Newport observes, we should not blame only ourselves if we become addicted to our phones and tablets: “People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy but because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.”

There is, of course, already an array of insightful analysis of the challenges out there, as well as constructive and thoughtful recommendations for how to address them. Perpsectiva’s attention initiative is among them. Another is Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams (which is freely available online). And The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff looks to be especially relevant. In a critical but informative and largely positive review in The New York Times, Jacob Silverman describes it as “a rare book that we should trust to lead us down the long hard road of understanding.”  In The Los Angeles Review of Books, Nicholas Carr writes that “like another recent masterwork of economic analysis, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, [Zuboff’s] book challenges assumptions, raises uncomfortable questions about the present and future, and stakes out ground for a necessary and overdue debate.”

Imagining anew is not easy.  Established patterns of thought, reinforced as they are by established power structures and technologies, are hard to shift — a point well made by Mark Curtis in a long interview published in The Economist in December.  To blame everything on ‘capitalism’ is not new, and may be to succumb to outrage porn, changing nothing. For starters, capitalism itself may not necessarily be monolithic. Its Chinese incarnation has different characteristics from its Western one and, as George Soros warns, poses different dangers. Further, it’s not impossible that enterprise with a focus on purpose as described by Mariana Mazzucato and others could be a vital part of solution to challenges such as a rapid green energy transition.

In any case, I will continue to log on to Twitter and other social media— with, I trust, more control and intention — as part of my small daily struggle to connect, to become more aware, and to act rightfully. I hope you will too.

Caspar Henderson is an associate at Perspectiva

Image of Australian Jewel beetles and their stubby friend via Perthnow


  1. It’s important to appreciate that on Twitter the content is ranked by voting. This means that, in terms of content, Twitter is a democracy. Cheap signals are used to allocate attention.

    In a market though attention is allocated by costly signals. Farmers pay attention to the crops that people spend their money on… like avocados. When you buy avocados you essentially say, “Avocados are worth paying attention to! You know that I’m telling the truth because I just sacrificed my money for some.”

    The fact of the matter is that the internet was invented before society recognized the huge difference between costly signals and cheap signals. Of course it’s entirely possible that I’m overestimating the usefulness of costly signals. The proof is in the pudding. Here are two new websites where costly signals are used, at least to some degree, to allocate attention…

    With the first site you can see the posts in each category sorted by value, but you can’t see the replies to a post sorted by value. It’s the opposite with the second website.

    What are your thoughts?


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