Attention is Not Just a Commodity, It’s a Choice
Our understanding of attention can be transformed and improved when describing the concept in other languages.
‘Attention’ is on everyone’s lips. But what are we talking about when we talk about ‘attention’? Too often, we seem to be talking at cross purposes, meaning different things with the same word, creating confusion and frustration as a result.
The chief cause of confusion seems to be whether attention is defined as a noun or a verb, a thing or a choice. Perhaps if we could choose between the two, we could speak in one voice.
Deep down, Westerners think attention is a thing. We are led by the logic of our languages to conceptualise attention as a substance with almost physical characteristics. Our word “attention” derives from the Latin a-tentio — [to] the grasp. A similar metaphor is found in the Old English cognate – “be-hold”.
The implications of this ‘attention-as-thing’ idea are played out in the language that surrounds our use of the word ‘attention’. In English, we use the language of finance: we “pay attention” or “earn attention”. We “spend” time with brands (and get annoyed when they “waste” it). But what else would you expect in the UK, the only country in the world that calls its public rest days “Bank Holidays”?
Other Indo-European languages retain the same idea of ‘attention-as-a-thing’ but are slightly less money-grubbing. The Portuguese “lend” attention (preste atenção, perhaps with interest?). The French “give” it freely (donner de l’attention). The Germans, kind souls that they are, “gift” it (Aufmerksamkeit schenken), a concept they share with Hindi speakers (ध्यान दो, dhyaan do).
This isn’t just an Indo-European thing. Languages like Tamil (கவனம், kavaṉam koṭukka) and Yoruba (san ifojusi) share the idea that attention is an object, a noun, a thing — to be given, received, or exchanged, often on an all-or-nothing basis.
But if it is a thing, then it’s something very strange. You can’t actually grasp or hold it. It doesn’t actually get given because it can’t actually be returned. The Attention Economy is a helpful analogy not a scientific fact. This mobile army of metaphors isn’t getting us anywhere nearer the truth.
But do not despair. Other language groups have very different views on the essence of attention — and these insights can transform our understanding of the topic.
In Arabic attention is “given” (اءنيباه Intibah), but given in the sense of “giving care to”. We have a similar idea when we think of a nurse “attending” to a patient, but this is how Arabic speakers conceptualise attention to everything — even something as banal as advertising.
There’s a further twist to ‘attention-as-care’ in the Modern Hebrew idea of תשומת לב (t’sumát lév) to “place upon your heart”. Here there is a mixing of attention and intention. In a sense, modern Israelis see what they “want” to see.
And Chinese uses an entirely different logic again. Instead of attention-as-thing, 注意 (zhù yì) assumes that attention is a process, to be “poured” or “infused”. The initial character is a water symbol, and in Chinese attention flows from one thing or person to another. You can “soak up” ideas or let your attention “spill”, but the process is paramount.
It seems that modern Western science has learned a lot from Ancient Chinese and Modern Hebrew. Most psychologists have abandoned the idea of ‘attention-as-thing’ and opted for ‘attention-as-process’ instead. Attention is defined as a behavioural procedure: selection for action.
The word that’s doing most of the work there is ‘selection’. The world is full of stuff, of varying importance to our aims and purposes. Attention is the process by which we choose what engage with and what to ignore. In that sense, it is a “flow” or a “stream”, that is modulated by what matters to us at that moment — what we “place on our heart”, as the Modern Hebrew has it. Attention is, therefore, a choice, or series of choices made over time.
Following this scientific insight, Lumen has developed two basic units to represent the choicefulness of attention: the percentage chance an ad will be selected to be viewed, and the average length that the ad was viewed for. Because two numbers is often one number too many, we combine these two measures into a single synthetic unit: attentive seconds per thousand impressions (% chance of viewing, multiplied by average dwell time multiplied by one thousand impressions).
At the moment, we can only do this for visual media, as eye-tracking is much easier to do than ‘ear tracking’ or ‘touch tracking’. But the concept of selection for action remains consistent. This is what we — and the mainstream scientific community — are talking about when we talk about ‘attention’.
But is this the end of the debate? Is Chinese folk wisdom right, and English folk wisdom wrong? I would not be so sure.
If nothing else, the diversity of attention concepts suggests that we are dealing with a slippery fish. Like the blind men describing the different parts of an elephant by touch, we all may be right and all may be wrong at the same time. But even if we all agree that attention is a process, what sort of process is it? Is it like a filter or is it like a spotlight? If it is selective, what is it selective of?
And so, it might be a good time to put more emphasis on the second part of the definition: selection for action. Rather than going back to first principles, perhaps we can learn more by understanding final outcomes. In the case of advertising, this means linking attention data to outcomes metrics such as brand lift studies or sales lift studies.
These approaches allow us not only to understand how attention drives action but give us a chance to infer what attention must be at its core. Every time we run a test on a live campaign, we learn a little more about how attention drives outcomes — and in turn, a little more about what defines attention. This humble test-and-learn approach is the fastest, most pragmatic and most secure route to useful knowledge.
Perhaps this piecemeal, stopgap approach comes naturally to us. The first recorded use of ‘Lumen’ in English describes a gap, the missing piece that lets the light in. Only later was the word adopted as the name of a measure of light. But, as Juliet asked, “What’s in a name?”