2009/06/28

Attention - a scarce resource

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The past days repeated an important lesson about human behaviour and possibilities:
It revealed the scarcity of attention.

Our attention was in great part focused on the Iranian unrest for days, and that would likely have been true for the next day; if Michael Jackson hadn't died.


His death was as untimely and unexpected as the deaths of Elvis Presley, Bob Marley and Bruce Lee. He was a culturally very important person and his death justified a lot of coverage in the media.

Did the Iranian unrest become less relevant because of his death?
No - it was just crowded out by the other news.

We cannot really influence the Iranian affair with our attention (albeit some are 'optimistic' enough to think so). It was just a great example because of the stark contrast.


In a perfect world we would have a variable amount of daily news coverage - depending on how much actually happened.
Yet, in this world we have a fixed amount of daily news (newspapers with near-constant pages, TV news with near-constant time slot) plus a variable add-on volume of 'news' on special occasions.

Attention is a scarce resource, and it's important that we learn and accept this.
We can consciously improve the situation if we're aware of this limit.

We can block irrelevant information to save attention for relevant information.
I've made that point in regard to pirates and economic crisis repeatedly; the latter deserves the attention that the former get.

Attention on problems creates pressure to solve problems. This is one of the reasons for the media's importance in democratic societies.

Our societies' ability to solve problems could be enhanced very much if we chose consciously to pay attention primarily to important things.
This would also help to improve the efficiency of resource allocation. It's simply not smart to spend billions on marginal problems.


Military institutions should also understand that wide-spread attention to shortcomings is a good thing - no matter how unpleasant it is for those (failing officers) in charge.

Sven Ortmann

P.S.: RIP
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