Before we can share our ideas or the benefits of our offerings with others, first we must get their attention. In fact, before anything registers in our consciousness and becomes a part of our experience, it has to get our attention. Otherwise, as far as we are concerned, it never happened.
So attention arbitrage is more fundamental to our human experience than we may realize. And there is so much to that process we take for granted.
Our brains are flooded with billions of sensory inputs that they have to sift through in real time to decide what deserves our attention. And without a system to help filter and prioritize what is relevant, we would essentially go insane. Our brains accomplish this incredible feat through its reticular activation system (RAS).
In our digital lives, algorithms are to computers what the RAS is to the brain. From billions of inputs, algorithms dictate what appears on our social media timelines, for example, or the quality of our search results on Google.
So if we hope to get people’s attention, it’s important to understand the criteria RAS and algorithms use for attention arbitrage.
The fundamental function of algorithms and the RAS is pattern recognition. It’s a complex system used to sort through and prioritize what’s important. And once something is classified as consistently unimportant, we stop noticing it. However, when something causes a pattern disruption, it typically gets our attention. In fact, we are hardwired to notice pattern disruptions because our survival depends on it. So there is tremendous value in differentiation because it enables us to leverage the power of pattern disruption. It enables us to be remarkable. Literally. There is one caveat, however. Pattern disruption without relevance is essentially what we call a “spam.” It might get our attention but once the RAS and algorithms register it as not relevant, they stop serving it to us.
The primary goal of the RAS and Algorithms is to bring to our attention only what is relevant. Our RAS defines relevance as something necessary to function and survive as individuals and as members of society, whereas algorithms use pattern recognition to understand our interests and habits in order to determine what is relevant to us. Relevancy is the most important criterion for attention arbitrage. And for the work we do, it means having enough empathy to understand our consumers’ needs, aspirations and preferences so we can inspire, educate and delight them. But despite our best efforts to be remarkable and relevant, there is one more factor that dictates attention arbitrage: timeliness.
What is happening now takes precedence over other inputs. It’s the only way we can function and make decisions in real time. Furthermore, relevance and timeliness are often deeply connected. When we are not in the market for a car, for example, we are unlikely to notice promotional content about cars. But once it’s time for us to get a new car, all of sudden, it seems everywhere we look someone is trying to sell us a car. So as we seek to get attention, it’s important to remember that people care about different things at different times so timing is important.
Ultimately, we all lose when we treat attention as the goal because it leads to deceit and mistrust. Attention-as-a-goal is for slimy marketers, with their spams, misleading headlines and thumbnails. For the rest of us, attention is the reward for having the self-awareness and courage to be our authentic selves and to stand out from the crowd. It’s the reward for having done the work with empathy and generosity towards those we seek to serve. So being remarkable, relevant and timely have nothing to do with seeking attention, but everything to do with paying more attention to the needs and aspirations of the people whose lives we seek to transform for better.