The economy of attention
August 17, 2007
The cognitive limitations of humans put an upper bound on the number of ideas that any person can get to understand, in an hour, a day, a year, and over a lifetime. If the number of ideas occurring or being offered to a person exceeds the number that can be handled, some process of rejection needs to take place.
The preliminary classification of ideas – which are to be rejected outright and which deserve further consideration – needs to be quick and easy enough so that the process of classification will not by itself overwhelm the attention resources available. Rejecting ideas based on fully understanding their merits is clearly out of the question, since the object of the rejection process is precisely to avoid the need to fully understand the ideas.
Some superficial features of the idea have to be the sole discriminatory evidence for many of the ideas being considered. Some such superficial features are:
- Familiarity – the more familiar an idea seems – the terms that it uses, the assumptions being made – the lower is the expected cost of fully understanding it. It makes sense to try and understand those ideas that are easy to understand, since any advantage the may come from understanding them will be an advantage obtained at a small expenditure.
- Credibility of the source – if a classification of sources can be made into credible ones and non-credible one, or those that carry useful ideas and those the carry useless ideas, then the identity of the source of the idea is a useful, cheap indicator to the value of the idea.
- Repetition – if an idea occurs repeatedly that could be an indication that the idea is useful in various situations. If an idea is offered repeatedly that could indicate that it is widely accepted, and has therefore been screened and evaluated as valuable by many people.