Thursday, May 07, 2009

Attention economics

At the heart of economics lies scarcity. Scarcity forces decisions that economists then hope to understand. According to the author of a new book on attention, attention is a scarce resource:
“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”
Naturally, as an economist, I start to wonder. What are the returns to the various uses of attention? How much does it cost to invest in acquiring additional attention capacity? Are people allocating their attention efficiently? Acquiring the efficient amount?

I disagree with the idea of acquiring additional attention capacity. This concept contradicts the previous statement in the article that "energy is a finite resource." That said there are subtle ways to increase attention span and improve attention efficiency, some of which, such as adderall and energy are available and utilized right here on our college campus. In general, I would say people do a very poor job of managing their attention efficiency. For example, say one student needs to put in a solid two hours of intense study, but instead of sitting down in a quiet room with their book and hammering it out they decide to be on their computer with their messenger open, their music playing, watching youtube all while hoping to study. If you call sitting in a quiet room with your textbook 100% studying efficiency, that the latter stated scenario would have to be called at best 40% efficiency. Therefore, it would take the student with the computer, messenger and music playing 2.5x longer to study than her focused counterpart. resulting in staying up all night at the library rather than getting reasonable rest the night before a test.
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