Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Strangeness of attention

I had written about how Gandhi spoke calmly forcing people to strain to hear him. A similar situation is described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile. He writes of the time when he had to give some lectures. He was asked to do some antics on the stage to attract attention and speak in a clear voice which he refused to do. He writes:
I find it better to whisper, not shout. Better to be slightly inaudible, less clear...One should have enough self-control to make the audience work hard to listen, which causes them to switch into intellectual overdrive. This paradox of attention has been a little bit investigated: there is empirical evidence of the effect of 'disfluency'...The management guru Peter Drucker and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the two people who mesmerised the crowds the most in their respective areas, were the antithesis of the polished-swanky speaker or the consonant-trained television announcer.
Psychologists divide the brain conceptually into two parts: System 1 represents what we call intuition and System 2 represents reason, self-control and considered decision making. System 1 is fast and does not require much effort. System 2 is slow and requires effort. We rely most of the time on System 1 for our regular activities and it does fine. Occasionally, this causes problems. There are times when using System 2 would have been beneficial but we often skip it since it requires time and effort. Advertising, political, nationalistic and religious messages target System 1 which is why they are so effective.

The brain measures what psychologists call the ‘cognitive ease’ of a given situation. If it determines a particular situation to be easy, it decides that extra effort need not be made to process it and that the information can be processed by System 1 by itself without bringing System 2 online. When you can hear a speaker clearly, the brain determines a situation of cognitive ease and extra effort of System 2 is not called upon. (Of course, this should not be taken too far. If you can’t hear a speaker properly because say, fire-crackers are going off around you – as happens during Diwali – your System 2 working at full tilt is not going to help you.)

Similarly, when the font is large and you can see the writing clearly, the brain has a sense of cognitive ease and it avoids extra work.  I have experienced this effect quite often. When I get a book that  has fonts a bit smaller than usual, I have some difficulty in seeing it. This makes me read a bit slower than usual and this helps in grasping the matter better. Again, this should not be taken too far. There is a certain ‘twilight zone’ where the greater effort of System 2 is effective. Before reaching this zone, the quick but superficial System 1 is in charge. Beyond this zone, System 2 is ineffective.

The situations of cognitive ease and strain have various effects on how we process information. When you are in a state of cognitive ease, you are more likely to like and believe what you see and hear. You are also likely to be more casual and superficial in your thinking. In a state of cognitive strain, you are more likely to be vigilant and invest more effort in whatever you are doing. Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow:
…predictable illusions inevitably occur if a judgment is based on an impression of cognitive ease or strain. Anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs. A reliable way to make people believe falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. . Authoritarian institutions and advertisers have always known this fact.
A psychological effect called the Dr Fox effect shows the impact of speaking styles on an audience. An actor with no formal training in a subject was told to give a convincing, exciting lecture and a bland, formal lecture; with the content for both lectures being  basically nonsense. It was found that people felt they had learned a lot more from the engaging lecture rather than the more conventional one even though they didn’t notice that in both cases the talks were gibberish.

The audience tends to get distracted by the speaker's hand movements and fails to pay attention to what he is saying. This was demonstrated to me during a communications class when I was working in Bajaj Auto Ltd. The speaker told us to follow his instructions. He then told us - 'Touch your forehead', 'Touch your ear', 'Touch your eye'...All the while his hands were doing what he was saying. Then he said, 'Touch your cheek' while he touched his chin. I think everyone in the room without exception touched his chin. He kept repeating, 'Touch your cheek' while we stared at him wondering why he was repeating his instructions. We realised our mistake a moment later and stared at each sheepishly.

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