Jonah Lehrer contributed Control Your Spotlight in response to the Edge question about what scientific concepts would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit. His observations published in This Will Make You Smarter, were about what we learned from experiments with children who were challenged to and were most successful in exercising their will power. His observations parallel mine from my management consulting experience about what makes people and organizations more successful in their enterprises.
He observed that will power is really about properly directing the spotlight of attention, – learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. The psychologist who conducted the experiment with four year old children followed up with the subjects thirteen years later when they were high school seniors to discover strong correlations with behaviour in response to stressful situations, in paying attention, and in maintaining friendships which suggest this cognitive skill seems to be a core part of success in the real world.
These correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention. When we properly control the spotlight, we can resist negative thoughts and dangerous temptations. We can walk away from fights and improve our odds against addiction. Our decisions are driven by the facts and feelings bouncing around in our brain, – the allocation of attention allows us to direct this haphazard process, as we consciously select the thoughts we want to think about.
Furthermore, this mental skill is becoming more valuable. We live after all in the age of information, which makes the ability to focus on the important information incredibly important. Herbert Simon said it best: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” The brain is a bounded machine, and the world is a confusing place, full of data and distractions. Intelligence is the ability to parse the data so that it makes just a little bit more sense. Like willpower, this ability requires the strategic allocation of attention.
In recent decades, psychology and neuroscience have severely eroded classical notions of free will. The unconscious mind, it turns out, is most of the mind. And yet we can still control the spotlight of attention, focusing on those ideas that will help us succeed. In the end, this may be the only thing we can control.
In a related contribution, Daniel Kahneman about The Focusing Illusion as a scientific concept which could improve our cognitive toolkit.
“The mismatch in the allocation of attention between thinking about a life condition and actually living it is the cause of the focusing illusion.
Marketers exploit the focusing illusion. When people are induced to believe that they “must have” a good, they greatly exaggerate the difference the good will make to the quality of their life. The focusing is greater of some goods than for others, depending on the extent to which the goods attract continued attention over time.
Politicians are almost as good as marketers in causing people to exaggerate the importance of issues on which their attention is focused. People can be made to believe school uniforms will significantly improve educational outcomes, or that health care reform will hugely change the quality of life in the United States, – either for the better or the worse. Health care reform will make a difference, but the difference will be smaller than it appears when you focus on it.”
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