Attention is a Valuable and Limited Resource

One of the personal resources that’s easy to take for granted is attention. That is, what you’re looking at or thinking about at a given moment. And in today’s information age, attention is a valuable resource. Marketers are constantly trying to grab your notice through commercials, billboards, pop-up ads, and product placement. The research on attention is actually pretty cool. Some of my favorite findings are:

  1. Babies use their attention (where they are looking or if they are looking) to help regulate (control) themselves. Ever see a baby fall asleep in a really noisy place? They are overwhelmed with stimulation and sleep is a way to control that. So is looking away from that loud stranger who has gotten too close.
  2. The key problem in ADHD is that children can’t keep their attention from being distracted. This is known as “inhibition.” Whereas children without ADHD are able to ignore distractions, like someone coming into their classroom or a noise going on in the other room, a child with ADHD can’t help but react. Even if that means they get in trouble!
  3. When we learn something new like driving, reading, or tying shoes, our attention is fully focused. We can’t do anything else. Likewise, when we do something challenging, like driving in traffic, reading in fuzzy font, or figuring out our new Smartphone, our attention is fully focused–and again, we can’t do anything else.
  4. Learning something new is often frustrating. When learning a new task, people’s thoughts and attention tend to be negative. E.g., “I don’t like this,” “This is hard,” “I’m never going to get this,” and other downers like that. But the cool part is, the better you get at the task, the less likely you are to have those negative thoughts. The key is to make it past that first, tough part.
  5. Just like babies, children and adults can refocus their attention to regulate or improve their mood. If their friend takes away a toy, a 5-year-old who immediately finds a new toy to happily play with is going to have less trouble in kindergarten than a 5-year-old who strikes out and becomes angry. Likewise, an adult who can “focus on the positive” (ick-phrase, but true) after a setback has better mental health.

Last night, at Torn Space Theater’s surreal production of They Kill Things, I used my attention to regulate my fear. There were lots of creepy situations, and in an everyday environment, I would have freaked out if a bulky masked man walked up to me and looked closely at my hands. Or if a group of masked maidens dressed in white rags wrapped a May pole while chanting.

Maypole Maidens | photo by C. E. Cameron

But I was in Silo City, a converted industrial site. The environment was so amazing and so different from anything I’d ever experienced, that I could move on from feeling scared immediately, simply by refocusing my attention on something else.

Silo City | photo by C. E. Cameron

Obviously there are times when it won’t work to refocus attention. There are plenty of situations that demand your full attention, for safety, or learning an important lesson, for example. But awareness of attention as a resource has definitely helped me in certain situations. Even outdoor interactive theater productions.

Social Capital Is Part of Inequality, Too

Inequality is talked about a lot. Poverty is talked about a lot. In my work, poverty and its consequences are considered the “no duh” reason for a lot of children’s problems in school.

Parents who, to make ends meet, have to work more than one job, without a steady schedule, suffer all sorts of consequences. Maybe they can’t get childcare at the last minute, have to skip work, and lose their job. Maybe they don’t have time to fix a taillight, get pulled over, and are fined an amount they can’t afford to pay. A recent report described how this type of inequality–maybe we could call it unequal labor rights and privileges– doesn’t just stress out parents. Children in low-income families without regular schedules are stressed too.

Money–financial capital–comes up a lot whenever people talk about inequality, but there is another type of resource, social capital, that makes a huge difference. Social capital includes all the resources you have access to because of your social connections. The “Hey, I need a babysitter, can I drop my kids with you, Auntie?” and the “I have an extra X (crockpot, grill, bike, mattress–all things I have lent or borrowed at some point), do you want to use it?” Or the “Hey, I know a gal who knows a gal who can…(get you a job, review your resume, proofread your website for free).”

I recently met a woman–a longtime Buffalo resident–who, after we discussed real estate, got to talking about “poor people.” At first her comments bordered on insulting. Then, after she talked for awhile, she seemed to catch herself. Empathy seemed to come into the space.

She finally said, “I bet it’s really hard to be poor.”

“YES!” I thought. Poverty is hard, and part of why it’s hard is because it’s about more than money. But when it’s about community–social capital–that means we can solve it, as a community. I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly how, but I’m proud to live in a city that wants to try. I think it has something to do with social relationships.

Opportunity [to Smile and Say Hello] Pledge

For the last year or so, I’ve made an effort to smile and say hello to people in passing.  Before adopting this habit, I had this complicated conversation with myself whenever I approached someone on the sidewalk.

Will they say ‘hi’ back? Will they think I’m weird? Am I weird?

Then I decided, who cares? If one of my goals is to, on a daily basis, make the world a more friendly place, this is a low-cost way to do it.

At first–when the behavior was new–saying hello felt like a lot of effort. This is because I hadn’t done it before, and the awkward questions in my head still sounded. But now, saying hello feels almost automatic. Do I say hi every time I pass someone? No. Some people are on their phones or intently looking down at the sidewalk in a way that says clearly “don’t talk to me.” I skip them. But everyone else–whether they’re sitting or standing, passing me by or clear across the street–gets a hello.

I’ve found that most people say ‘hello’ back. When that happens, I feel good, and I feel a little less like an anonymous stranger passing another anonymous stranger. I feel like part of the community in a way that I didn’t, before this habit.

Today I heard Buffalo’s #1 community leader, Mayor Byron Brown, encourage the citizens of Buffalo to sign the “Opportunity Pledge.” (You can sign the pledge here.) This pledge means that the signer appreciates and respects diversity, and acknowledges that only through taking advantage of and celebrating our diversity can we become a prosperous, healthy, and dignified community.

I can get behind that. So, Buffalo, I pledge to take the opportunity to smile and say hello, as often as I can. Maybe I’ll make someone’s day–maybe that someone will be me.

Either way, the community wins. Because I am the community, and the community is me.

Sunken Cost and Coffee Shops

My new office isn’t ready yet.

So I decided to work at the library. But this morning when I arrived at 9:30, the library was closed, until noon. The rational thing to do would have been to turn around and walk back 2 blocks to the coffee shop I knew was open, I’d worked at before, and which is a pleasant place to work. But…

A sunken cost is the time, money, or other resources you have already invested in something, whether or not that something ends up working out. The 20 minutes I had already spent walking from our new apartment to the library were, for me, a sunken cost. And instead of turning around—which would have made me feel that those last 2 blocks were for naught—I kept going.

photo by C. E. Cameron

Given that I fell victim to the cognitive bias known as “sunken cost”…

I walked for another 20 minutes, expecting at every moment to see another coffee shop at the next block. I passed a coffee and tea supply store, and almost a dozen restaurants and cafes, which were, like the library, CLOSED. Finally I spotted a corner shop with COFFEE CULTURE in large letters. I felt vindicated. My walk—totaling 40 minutes, double my initial “investment” had paid off.

Then, as I approached the door, I squinted, hoping that the dark interior and white postings on the front door were simply part of the ambiance.

No chance. The white postings were eviction notices, dated more than a month ago.

 It took a while, but I finally did the rational thing:

I turned around, and went back to the original spot, Spot Coffee. Moral of the story? I’m not actually sure. If I were a rational economist, I’d say “should have turned around at the library.” But I’m in a new place, still getting to know the Elmwood Village. Maybe, like ants exploring for food, my additional walk would have revealed the perfect place to work. Maybe next time, it will. (Perhaps by now you’ve figured out I wasn’t using a SmartPhone). But maybe, like ants exploring for food, much of my time ended up wasted.

Oh well. Being rational isn’t one of my life goals anyway. Awareness and looking at the scenery is more my library-passing, coffee-shop seeking, stop-and-smell-the-flowers speed.

photo by C E Cameron

How To Talk About Things That Are Hard to Talk About

How to talk about the things that are most difficult? Choose one or more answers that apply.

A. Don’t. Keep it inside, and when a thought that pains or confuses you comes across your mind, wave it away like a fly.

B. Talk about it haphazardly. Talk about it when you don’t mean to, with people you don’t know or trust, and say things that you didn’t realize you thought, accidentally and without intention. Take the consequences and regret.

photo by C E Cameron

photo by C E Cameron

C. Talk about it awkwardly. Start to talk about it, then change your mind and see how the conversation partner responds. If they want to talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show, take it as a signal that they’re not ready, either. Talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show so neither of you has to act awkward in public. Or keep pushing until they hang up or become angry or stonewall. Feel sad that they won’t engage.

D. Talk about it thoughtfully. Mull your feelings over for a while first, write about it privately, decide how to open the topic and with whom you feel safe discussing it. Resolve not to become offended or hurt but to instead take new information in, like you’d feel a fabric before deciding to try it on. Feel grateful when the person(s) responds with thoughtfulness back, validating your feelings and telling you what they think. Feel more connected, trusting, and less alone.

There are so many topics that we would all like to pretend don’t hurt us. Catastrophic climate change, sexist family members, racism and police brutality, end of life decisions, second weddings, our personal writing. What are the consequences for not talking? Are they worse than trying B-D and going from there?

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thoughtful analogy by Jeremy Dowsett from Lansing, MI

Originally posted on Quartz:

The phrase “white privilege” is one that rubs a lot of white people the wrong way. It can trigger something in them that shuts down conversation or at least makes them very defensive. (Especially those who grew up relatively less privileged than other folks around them). And I’ve seen more than once where this happens and the next move in the conversation is for the person who brought up white privilege to say, “The reason you’re getting defensive is because you’re feeling the discomfort of having your privilege exposed.”

I’m sure that’s true sometimes. And I’m sure there are a lot of people, white and otherwise, who can attest to a kind of a-ha moment or paradigm shift where they “got” what privilege means and they did realize they had been getting defensive because they were uncomfortable at having their privilege exposed. But I would guess that more often than…

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Gender Differences ~ A Tender Topic

“Of course, addressing the learning gap between boys and girls will require parents, teachers and school administrators to talk more openly about the ways each gender approaches classroom learning—and that difference itself remains a tender topic.”
— Enrico Gnaulati, Atlantic article, 9/18/14, “Why girls tend to get better grades than boys do”

This article mentions my research on gender differences in school readiness. It also draws attention to a couple of important ideas that are harder to work into a scientific journal article.

1. The learning environment–including adult expectations for children’s intelligence, performance, and behavior–shapes a lot of what students do.  We all like the idea that we are in control of our actions.  But lots of research shows otherwise. Especially for young children, their behavior and choices are largely determined by the opportunities around them. Sometimes these are called “affordances” which essentially means that the environment offers or affords certain choices and prohibits others.

I don’t have a pool in my house, so if I want to swim, I have to change my environment. A child who is never given a chance to play the cello, or to use oil paints, or to speak a certain language, can never show you what they are capable of in that area. The environment is just not set up for them to show you what they can do. And if some children–many of them boys–do their best work in a high-energy environment with lots of opportunities for movement, then they will look like failures in a system that requires docile, cooperative, and organized behavior.

2. The environment affects everyone. As far as I know, there are no exceptions to this rule. No group is less affected by their environment than others. A good example of how the environment can be manipulated to influence behavior is the studies on stereotype threat. This is the idea that the negative stereotypes that others hold about our group can affect our performance in a high-stakes situation where we care about the outcome. A long line of research has shown that every type of individual–no matter their age, gender, race or ethnic group, food preferences, toenail polish color, make/model of their car* can be made to worry that their performance on a test will be bad and that the bad performance will confirm others’ negative ideas about them and their group. All that is needed is a comment–a short little sentence–drawing the person’s attention to that negative stereotype.
*OK, I give in. The last few have not been studied.

In schools today, I wonder about the unexamined expectation that many teachers and parents have that boys will behave badly. I’ve overheard countless comments from teachers, future teachers, parents, and researchers like “boys will be boys,” “you know boys,” “boys are so much worse than girls,” and on and on. It’s true that boys are genetically more vulnerable than girls–males lack part of a chromosome that females have, after all–but these comments help perpetuate a socially-acceptable form of prejudice and disrespect. This anti-male mindset also adds fuel to the fire that burns away boys’ sense of self-worth and agency, their sense of belonging in this world. We don’t need more of those toxic messages for any group, even the group that has historically dominated society.

3. Gender differences are extremely difficult to talk about. I was appalled when I went from Dr. Gnaulati’s article, which offered constructive approaches to closing the “behavior gap” in gender, to the comments about the article. Almost immediately the individuals commenting devolved into anti-male and anti-female rhetoric and name-calling. I guess I was surprised because the research I’ve done in this area makes me forget how strongly people feel about their own gender’s legitimacy and the other gender’s faults. But this disrespectful set of comments also made me realize–we’re all flawed and we all get defensive when a group to which we belong is threatened. And, as the cast of Avenue Q well knows, we each have our own biases.

Maybe it’s too much to hope that we could set aside our defensive feelings and biases when figuring out how to support our children in school. Barring some apocalyptic event that wipes out one gender (which Carolyn O’Neal has written a novel about), our students will always need to learn to cooperate and respect women, men and the growing number of people who do not identify with either category. But even so, I will persist in trying to have the delicate conversation with an open mind, and a sense of respect for every child who is trying to learn in this tough world, and for the many wonderful individuals who are trying to teach them. We’re all in this together.