Thursday, May 7, 2015

Attention Theory

We're All Attention Seekers 
By Pat Williams
Condensed from Psychology Today
February 1979  

There is nothing wrong with seeking attention. It is a psychological nutrition. What is counterproductive, however, is to allow the need to masquerade as something else, or not to acknowledge the need at all. Pat Williams asks, have you recognized how much attention you really need and the forms in which you get it? 

There is a pitiful little story about an eight-year-old girl who went to a restaurant with her mother. The waitress came up to them, gave each a menu, and returned a bit later, saying to the child: "What would you like, dear?" The child pulled at her mother's sleeve. "Did you hear that, Mummy?" She asked. "She thinks I'm real!"

There was a young woman recently who repeated a pattern that is all too familiar to social workers. She stole a banker's card, bought herself beautiful clothes and jewelry, and patronized the best hotels and restaurants at which, because of her style and apparent money, she was treated like a storybook princess – until the police caught up with her. 

There was a man who went into a London Marks and Spencers, grabbed a rail of jackets, wheeled them out of the door, and ran down the street pushing them, shouting: "Arrest me! Arrest me!"

Probation and police officers are full of similar tales. And there are many men and women, young or old, who seem to be wedded to a cause – say that of the underdog, or patriotism, or militant politics, or some form of religion – who would be less interested in these matters, if at all, if a concealed psychological need – the need for attention – we're being satisfied. 

In all these stories what everyone was really seeking, in either an extreme, criminal way or, as in the last paragraph, in a more submerged and socially acceptable way, was… attention. 

Human beings, and animals too, seek attention, much as a plant seeks light – because it is a basic need, as much as hunger or thirst. A child can be deprived of attention to the point where it begins to feel unreal and invisible. A young woman will go to self-destructive lengths, playing an unreal role, to command attention. A man will invite arrest if he can find attention in no other fashion. Human beings may espouse causes, do 'good' or do 'bad', set themselves up as devoted servants or imperious masters, declare themselves deeply in love, all in order to get a feed of sufficient attention. 

Public generosity, for example, is often more a matter of attention-getting than generosity only. It is possible, after all, (and recommended in our own traditions, possibly for this among other reasons) to "do good by stealth". 

There is nothing wrong with seeking attention. We need it as we need our daily bread. It is a psychological nutrition. What is counterproductive, however, is to allow the need to masquerade as something else. Or not to acknowledge the need at all. 

The idea of attention being something we all want in our lives is conceded, rather dismissively, by most of us. But until recently we had little idea how comprehensively this matter of attention was affecting our lives. It is becoming increasingly clear that it is worth putting a great deal of the right kind of attention on the subject. 

The getting and giving of attention, and the various kinds of attention that exist, have not been considered much by Western psychologists, although it is a phenomenon well-known and better understood in the East. In recent years, however, it has been brought to the notice of the West by Idries Shah, who in his writings and university lectures has formulated an extremely valuable theory of attention. 

It seems to me best to quote Shah on the subject immediately, and extensively, for his statements are more informed and succinct than my interpretation of them could be. 

"Study the attracting, extending and reception as, as well as the interchange of attention", writes Shah, in Learning How to Learn (Octagon Press 1978). 

"One of the keys to human behavior is the attention factor. 

"Anyone can verify that many instances, generally supposed to be important or useful human transactions on any subject (social, commercial, etc.), are in fact disguised attention- situations. 

"It is contended that if a person does not know what he is doing (in this case that he is basically demanding, extending or exchanging attention) and as a consequence thinks that he is doing something else (contributing to human knowledge, learning, buying, selling, informing, etc.), he will (a) be more inefficient at both the overt and the covert activity; (b) have less capacity of planning his behavior and will make mistakes of emotion and intellect because he considers attention to be other than it is.

 "If this is true, it is most important that individuals realize: 

1. That this attention factor is operating in virtually all trend transactions; 

2. That the apparent motivation of transactions may be other than it really is. And that it often is generated by the need or desire for attention-activity (giving, receiving or exchanging). 

3 That attention activity, like any other demand for food, warmth, etc. when placed under volitional control, must result in increased scope for the human being who would not then be at the mercy of random sources of attention, or even more confused than usual if things do not pan out as they expect."

 He then enunciates 21 principles. I have space to quote and consider briefly only the first few in this article. But I have a strong hunch that if we could absorb and understand, really understand, even these (rather than having an intellectual or emotional response to them), we would be able to remove a great deal of tangle and clutter from our minds, leaving space to see something more useful and interesting. 

The first of these principles is that "too much attention can be bad (inefficient)". The second, that "too little attention can be bad."

I imagine that those of us who are interested in psychology are vaguely aware of this, but I wonder whether we have thought even the superficial implications of this right through, or examined the workings of it in the behavior of ourselves and those we know....


... an important man or woman in church or local affairs, may often be doing so primarily to fulfill attention need. The scientist or doctor who has made some important breakthrough may work on quietly – or, if he needs attention, may revel in the limelight. Everyone, in fact, unless they are aware of their attention needs and when they are satisfying them, is saying to a fairly indifferent world: "Look at me. I am here too, I count."

As Shah has pointed out elsewhere (Caravan of Dreams, Octagon Press, reprinted 1979):

 "MAN: Kick him – he'll forgive you. Flatter him — he may or may not see through you. But ignore him, and he'll hate you, even if he conceals it until he dies."

It's fascinating to try and dissect the element of attention-demand in the behavior of others. And the detective work becomes even more interesting and rewarding when one applies it back to oneself. 

In what ways do I, personally, get attention? Am I confusing an attention demand for something else? If there is an element of attention-exchange in all human encounters, can I recognize it each time? Am I getting enough? If not, can I face the fact that this is really what I am needing, even if I may be calling it, for example, something "higher"? Am I getting too much, thus making me inefficient? Can I, by making my intake less random and more conscious, cut down my intake? 

Shah says that if we seek attention more consciously, we will be more efficient in our lives. By his analogy, a tribe that is short of food is inefficient because it is hungry. But a tribe which has more than enough food is equally inefficient if it spends all day gathering it at random, chewing the berries, so to speak, where they find them. They are spending too much time on it – throwing away the chance of learning to do or be anything else in their lives. It would free them for a further range of possibilities if they could learn how to accumulate and store the food, and eat only at regular intervals.

 If we can concede, first, that it is possible to have too much or too little attention, we need then to think further, to identify in what guises attention may be given, gotten, or exchanged. 

Some further principles of Shah's may help us here:

 * Attention may be `hostile' or `friendly' and still fulfil the 
appetite for attention. This is confused by the moral aspect.

 * When people need a great deal of attention they are vulner- 

able to the message which too often accompanies the exercise of attention towards them. E.g., someone wanting attention might be able to get it only from some person or organisation which might thereafter exercise (as `its price') an undue influence upon the attention-starved individual's mind.

 * Present beliefs have often been inculcated at a time and under circumstances connected with attention-demand, and not arrived at by the method attributed to them.

 * Many paradoxical reversals of opinion, or of associates and 

commitments may be seen as due to the change in a source of 

 * People are almost always stimulated by an offer of attention, 

since most people are frequently attention-deprived. This is one 
reason why new friends, or circumstances, for instance, may be preferred to old ones.

 These statements seem to carry with them the possibility of liberation from the thrall in which our tendency to mistake attention-seeking for something else holds our minds and consequent behavior. 

Have you never been brainwashed by someone whose attention (you may have called it "respect ", "friendship "or "company ") you wanted? Never professed a sudden interest in, say boxing or etymology, because you want attention from someone who is interested in them? I have. The price has simply been loss of my own independent-mindedness in this area – though pride has made me loathe to admit it. This, of course, is relatively harmless: acceptable if one knows what one is doing. But we have all seen this kind of behavior writ large in groups, sects, cults, political associations, gangs of hoodlums, even children at school. Have you never changed your mind at the slightest pressure of someone you want to "like "or "like you"? And how often have you watched others do the same? 

Attention theory seems to me a Theseus' thread to unravel some of the confusion in the mind – because it goes all over the place. Its great value is that it breaks down categories of thought previously labeled and boxed as separate things, and enables us to see certain elements they have in common. It is a real step forward. 

As Shah himself says: "One of the advantages of this theory is that it allows the human mind to link in a coherent and easily-understood way many things which it has always (wrongly) been taught are very different, not susceptible to comparison, etc. This incorrect training has, of course, impaired the possible efficiency in functioning of the brain, though only culturally, not permanently".

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