Lumen Research’s Mike Follett says Eaon Pritchard’s position on attention neglects its evolutionary purpose, which is to help us skilfully navigate the world in order to achieve our aims and purposes. 

I have long read Eaon Pritchard’s work for profit and pleasure. The ad man, author and self-styled flâneur has leveraged Darwinian thinking to crack open many stubborn marketing problems over the years. So I was excited to hear that he had turned his attention to attention in his recent article, “Sense checking the half-truths of attention metrics”.

The article, I fear, has added more heat than light to the debate. But it is testament to Pritchard’s breadth of reading and depth of thinking that he adds value even when misguided. By pointing the way to an ecological theory of attention, he has shown that media planners and creative agencies have much to gain by thinking more deeply about the relationship between intention and attention.

Pritchard begins by setting up a straw man that no one believes, only to replace it with a commonplace that everyone accepts. Apparently, there are those in the “attention lobby” who posit an extremely simplistic “filter” model of attention. These unnamed individuals claim that attention is defined as a system for selecting what to engage with, given the near infinite volume of sensory stimuli and our very definitely finite cognitive resources. There is too much world and too little brain for us to be able to take it all in.

But this way of thinking neglects the evolutionary purpose of attention, which is not to veridically represent the world to the brain but instead, help us to skillfully navigate the world so we achieve our aims and purposes. These goals differ from person to person and situation to situation, and so our attention changes too. This process can be conscious: we are blind to the car keys on the table until we need to drive to the shops, whereupon we consciously change the mode of our attention. Or it can be unconscious: it’s an instinctive reaction to see a tree root “as” a snake until further inspection confirms that it’s not going to bite. In this sense, attention is less a “filter” and more a “spotlight” – not so much “seeing is believing” as “what we believe informs what we see”.

What directs this spotlight? As you might expect from a man who has written interesting and valuable books applying evolutionary thinking to advertising, Pritchard argues it’s all about successfully adapting to the world around you. Attention identifies “categories of information in the environment that (are) likely to be more critical than others for activities that contribute to evolutionary goals.” Deep down, attention is directed to what is significant for survival.

This teleological conceptualisation of attention is surely right. So right that in 10 years of working on this topic, I have never found anyone who would disagree with it.

But Pritchard goes further and this is where we part ways. How do we know what is significant for survival? The hidden hand of this particular selfish gene is emotion. Our emotional state provides an efficient shortcut to knowing what is meaningful and therefore noteworthy. Emotions, he claims, are “principally functional states that regulate attention and behaviours.” The eyes may be windows to the soul but it is the soul that counts. As advertising professionals, we should therefore spend less time worrying about attention, which is just a symptom, and more time thinking about emotion, which is the ultimate cause.

The problem(s) with emotion

This primacy of emotion is problematic in two ways.

The first problem is definitional: what the hell is an “emotion” anyway? This is less a topic of cosy consensus than you might think. As a card-carrying Darwinian, I suspect that Mr Pritchard believes humans are subject to fundamental and immutable emotions and response patterns. But there is a growing body of evidence from the likes of Karl Friston, Grigori Busaki and most notably Lisa Feldman Barrett to suggest that this model for understanding emotions is flawed. Positing that emotions drive attention does not end a discussion but rather opens up a new one.

But the primacy of emotions is problematic in a different way: the literal firstness of emotions.

Pritchard’s thesis is that one’s emotional state helps determine what is significant and therefore what gains attention. Emotions are the homunculus that directs the attentional spotlight. But how do we get into those emotional states in the first place? How do we get out of them? How do we respond to opportunities or threats in our environment without being alerted to them as opportunities and threats?

Pleasingly, but perhaps inadvertently, Pritchard’s article provides a route out of this particular chicken-and-egg henhouse: the “ecological view of attention” (EVA).

A potential way forward: The theory of affordances

Pritchard may be a flâneur but he is surely no dilettante, so I am sure he is well-acquainted with the ur-text of EVA, James Gibson’s “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception” (1979). Gibson’s key point is that things are only ever seen in context. In a sense, it is the context that allows us to perceive the thing at all. But even he has to deal with the same problem of priority as we have been discussing: how do you ascribe meaning to objects in a visual field so that you know what’s worth looking at?

His way out of this aporia is not emotion but affordances.

Affordances should appeal to Pritchard and to all advertising thinkers. According to Gibson, “(T)he affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill... It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.”

Affordances are a bit like “jobs to be done” – a relationship between the opportunities of the environment and the purposes of the actor. The handles on teacups afford drinking tea with one hand. A flight of steps affords access to the upstairs bedroom for an adult but not for a toddler (though an individual step may afford a convenient seat for them). A “sale ends Friday” ad may afford a great deal for someone who is in-market but equally afford a waste of precious time for someone who isn’t.

Gibson thought that it was these affordances that shaped our attention within the real world. We have aims and purposes in the world and see the world “through” these aims and purposes, seeing the same flight of stairs differently as a means of ascent or rest depending on our personal circumstances and desires. Intention changes attention but so does the environment.

And this is especially important for helping advertisers understand how people make sense of a media environment and the relative importance of advertising within that environment. Ads are never seen in isolation but always in some sort of context. Size and time matter – big ads really do get more attention than small ads and viewable time is a key driver of attention – but the context within which they are shown, the habitual viewing patterns of the medium, the intention and assumptions of the audience are also key factors to be included in any successful model of attention. Crucially, it is an understanding of these affordances that helps explain the most fundamental observation that we have made in 10 years of research: how little attention actually goes to advertising.

The Theory of Affordances, which underpins so much of the theory and practice of respectable attention companies, offers an exciting new way of conceptualising media planning and advertising in general, and we should be grateful to Mr Pritchard for sending us in this direction.