This week on the Mad in America podcast we hear from Johann Hari. Johann is an internationally bestselling author whose books have appeared in 38 languages, and he was twice named National Newspaper Journalist of the Year by Amnesty International.
We last heard from Johann in 2018 about his then-new book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions. Today, we get to talk about Johann’s latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, released on the sixth of January 2022 in the UK and January 25th in the US and Canada.
For Stolen Focus, Johann went on a three-year journey to uncover the reasons behind our inability to focus and to understand how this crisis affects our wellbeing and society. Crucially, he learned how we can reclaim our stolen focus if we are prepared to fight for it.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
James Moore: Johann, welcome. Thank you so much for joining me today for the Mad in America podcast. We last spoke in 2018 and we discussed your new book at the time Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions, which has quite rightly gone on to become an international bestseller.
Here we are in 2022, and your new book Stolen Focus looks at why we are struggling to pay attention. Did your work writing Lost Connections lead directly to your desire to write Stolen Focus, or was there a precipitating event that created the urge to find out more?
Johann Hari: I think there’s a sort of loose connection which is that all of my books are about a question that I want to answer that I don’t know the answer to in advance. Of course, I have various ideas, I have guesses. So, as you said, with Lost Connections the question was why are so many depressed? Why so many people are anxious? What can we do about it? For Stolen Focus there was – I won’t say a precipitating event – but sort of a culminating event where I realized I had to think about this.
When he was nine years old, my godson developed this brief but freakishly intense obsession with Elvis Presley. So he would obsessively do the classic Elvis impersonation, pelvis jiggling and low crooning. It’s funny because I don’t even know how he’d stumbled across Elvis, it must have been on YouTube. I remember him demanding that I tell him the story of Elvis. I gave him a little bit of the summary of the story and obviously I skipped the ending. In the course of that, I mentioned that he’d built this kind of palace for his mother when he became famous and called it Graceland.
I remember one night I was tucking him in and he said, “Johann, will you take me to Graceland one day?” I said, “Yeah of course”, in the way you do to children when they ask you completely hypothetical questions. I didn’t think about it again until 10 years later when things really went wrong. He was 19 by then and he had dropped out of school when he was 15. I was very worried about him partly because it felt like he just wasn’t able to focus on anything. He spent his life alternating between his iPad and his phone and his laptop and it’s a blur of YouTube and Snapchat and porn. He’s a lovely person, but it felt like there was nothing that could get traction in his mind. It felt like in that decade he’d become a man that he had kind of broken and fragmented. He was an extreme example, but I felt like that was happening to me and I thought it was also happening to lots of people I knew.
There was some suggestive evidence that I was aware of, a small study of American college students found that they focus on average on any one thing for 65 seconds. The average office worker, according to Gloria Mark’s research, focuses for three minutes on any given thing. Our whole life dissolves into a kind of hailstorm of 65 second and three-minute bursts.
One day, I remember we were sitting on my sofa here in London and I was looking at my phone, I looked back at him and said, “Let’s go to Graceland.” He didn’t even remember this Elvis obsession. I said, “We have to break this sort of numbing routine, let’s to Graceland.” He was like, “Are you serious?” I said, “But I’ll only do it if you promise that you won’t look at your phone all the time, that you’ll leave your phone in the hotel.” He said, “Yeah, yeah I promise.”
Just a couple of weeks later we went to New Orleans and different parts of the south and then on to Graceland. When you get a tour around Graceland now there isn’t a human being who shows you around anymore. What happens is you arrive and they give you an iPad and you put on headphones and the iPad talks to you and explains the history. We are walking around Graceland and everyone is just staring at their iPads. Heads down, staring at their iPad, and I keep trying to make eye contact with people.
One person did look at me, and I wanted to say to them, “Oh look, we are the people who travelled thousands of miles to actually look at the place we travelled to.” Then I realized that he glanced at me just because he looked away from the iPad to take out his phone to take a selfie. Eventually, we got to the Jungle Room which was Elvis’s favorite room in the mansion. This couple was standing next to me and he turned to his wife and said, “Honey, this is amazing. If you swipe left on the iPad you can see the Jungle Room to the left, and if you swipe right you can see the Jungle Room to the right.” I looked at him and his wife starts swiping left and right. I was so worked up I just said, “But Sir, you do realize there’s an old fashion form of swiping you could do here. You can just turn your head because we are actually in the Jungle Room, you don’t have to look at a representation of it on your iPad, we’re literally there, we’re in the Jungle Room.” Of course, they backed out of the room and clearly thought I was some kind of lunatic.
I turned to my godson to kind of laugh about it, and he was just standing in the corner looking at Snapchat because he just couldn’t keep to his pledge. He was just constantly texting, looking at Snapchat, unable to be at all present. I just started to kind of shout and he stormed off again entirely justifiably and I didn’t see him again until that night. We were staying at the Heartbreak Hotel which is just down the street from Graceland. I found him by this swimming pool that is shaped like a guitar and they play Suspicious Minds constantly on a loop there. He just said, “I know something’s really wrong, but I don’t know what it is” and went back to looking at his phone.
I remember feeling anger. I’m not angry with him, I was really angry at myself because I could feel those forces weighing on me, it wasn’t quite severe or at least the outcome wasn’t as severe. So that was when I thought I really need to investigate this. Maybe these anecdotes don’t represent a wider reality, maybe they do. I ended up travelling a huge amount all over the world from Rio to Moscow, from Miami to Melbourne to try to figure out what was really going on here. I believe that there is strong evidence that we are facing a real attention crisis and I got a lot of insight from the people I met and from studying their research about why this is happening to us and what we can do about it.
Moore: It was heartbreaking to read that account of the joy of childhood becoming obscured behind looking at screens. Of course, when you’re reading the book you recognize so much of that behavior in yourself. I’ve caught myself telling my daughter not to look at the screen so much while holding an iPad, it’s completely ridiculous.
Hari: I think you’re so right, this is something that’s weighing on everyone and not just because of the technological changes that have happened although they are a key part of it. But it can often feel very ambient, very slippery and it was really striking to me to learn from these amazing scientists that I got to know that there’s actually good scientific evidence for 12 different factors that are arguably dissolving our attention. But that once we understand that it does mean we can begin to get some handle on what’s going on. There are techniques, some of them are personal techniques and some of them are bigger social changes, that we can implement that will actually help us with this. It’s not that your attention collapsed, your attention has been stolen by these bigger forces and we need to shift how we think about it.
If I think about how I behaved towards my godson but also how I behaved towards myself, it was like a form of reproach. It’s like ‘you’re being lazy, you’re being weak, pull yourself together’, which doesn’t work, it doesn’t work very well for anything but particularly doesn’t work for this because there are these bigger causes. We need to think about this in a very different way and have a very different disposition towards our own attention problems and our kids’ attention problems.
Moore: The book examines a number of deep forces that work to damage our attention. I wondered if we could touch on a couple that stood out for me? The first one was the crippling of our flow states. The book talks of a crisis in how we spend our time and our waning, superficial attention, but it also talks of a real change in how we experience the present moment. People listening may have heard of the concept of ‘flow state’ but I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about that, why it’s so important for us and why it’s so much harder to reach in recent times?
Hari: I learned a lot about this from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who is the scientist who first discovered this and who I interviewed in Claremont in California. I was very lucky to get to interview him because he died very recently, which was a real loss. I think Mihaly’s story really helps us to understand the concept of flow. What he discovered is that all human beings have a capacity to focus very deeply in a way that feels effortless in certain circumstances and that the current way we live is militating against those circumstances.
I always think about him at the start of his story when he was nine years old, he was in a place called Fumei in Italy and it was the height of the Second World War and the place was being bombed to hell. One day, a bombing raid began and Mihaly ran to try to find shelter, and he ran to the local butcher’s shop because it was the nearest solid building and there were adults trying to get into the shop. They eventually managed to get in, but when they went in they discovered the three butchers had been murdered and were hanging from their butcher’s hooks. He had to hide there next to the bodies until the bombing raid had ended.
Mihaly was from a Hungarian family, his dad was a Hungarian diplomat and they were basically fleeing through different parts of Europe trying to find safety all through the war. He becomes a teenager in the ruins of Europe and he’s convinced that adults really don’t know how to live, they have destroyed the world and don’t know how to live. He ends up in a refugee camp for a while, having had a very hard life.
One day he’s approached to become a member of the local scout group and they start taking him out into the mountains, which he’d never done before. He starts to have this incredible feeling that he can’t articulate but when he was doing something quite difficult and challenging, like navigating a ravine, he felt like his sense of ego melted away that he had this deep feeling. He didn’t have a word for it then but he later called it flow, this moment which lots of people will have experienced. For some people, it would be playing the guitar, for some people it will be working out. For me. it would be writing. When you’re doing something and you are totally in it. You’re in that moment and you’re flowing and your sense of time and ego fall away and you’re paying deep attention. But it doesn’t ‘feel’ like you’re paying attention, it doesn’t feel that you have to, it’s just a gusher of attention.
Mihaly has these incredible experiences and decides that being in a refugee camp is no way to live. He decides to go to Rome when he’s only 13. He goes to Rome on his own and he becomes a translator and a waiter. He actually served Humphrey Bogart once. He decides he wants to study psychology and he makes his way to America. When he gets to America he has this really sobering discovery. He discovers that American psychology at that time is dominated by a really bleak vision. It’s a vision that’s actually taken over a lot of the world in which we now live in really important ways.
A man called B. F. Skinner was the most famous psychologist in the United States at the time. Skinner had built this model of psychology that was later used to design Instagram and social media that your daughter is no doubt obsessed with and most of the kids and most of us are obsessed with. It comes from a maddeningly simple form of psychology.
People can try this at home if they like if you want to see how it works. For example, if you get a pigeon and put it in a cage, pigeons are making random movements all the time, they peck around. You can select a random movement, such as when the pigeon moves its left wing, and decide to reward that movement. Every time it lifts its left wing you release a little bit of seed into the cage. Quite quickly, the pigeon will start obsessively raising its left wing because it has learned ‘oh that’s how I get a reward’. You could choose anything, you could choose when it raises its head high when it crouches low, it doesn’t matter, it is completely arbitrary.
Skinner had discovered that when you give a living creature arbitrary rewards, you can train it to do all sorts of crazy things it would not do otherwise. You can train a pigeon to play ping pong, you can train a pig to vacuum, you can train rabbits to pick up coins and put them in piggybanks. You can train an animal to focus on meaningless things if you give it the right pattern of rewards. Of course, these are the core insights that were later consciously used to design Instagram and so on.
But Mihaly thought ‘all they are doing is focusing on this very bleak and reductive aspect of human nature’. This is not who we want to be, just arbitrarily jerking and twitching according to someone else’s script. He believed that there must be more to human psychology than this. He decided to study something positive, something generative. He starts by just studying a group of painters in Chicago. He says to them, “Can I just watch you for months as you’re painting, just observe your process?” As he observes it he begins to observe exactly this thing about flow. When a painter is painting they go into this almost hypnotic state where attention comes very easily, where they’re very absorbed in what they do.
Skinner had argued that all of human psychology was about rewards but Mihaly noticed that once a painter had finished their painting, they don’t spend ages just staring at the painting they don’t obsess about the money they are going to get. Generally, they just put the painting aside and do another one. That actually if all of psychology was about this arbitrary reward, how would you explain that? You can’t. He discovered there must be more to psychology than this. There must be a positive and generative force, this is what led him to study what he called flow states.
Having talked to these painters he would start to look at a whole range of people like rock climbers, chess players. Initially, he only looked at non-professional people. He discovered that the way they described their experiences were incredibly similar and they very often used a word like flow. You just feel like you’re flowing. This is how he identified flow states which are really important. Firstly, they are the most profound form of human attention. Secondly, they are an innate human capacity, if you know where to drill you can release this gusher of attention within you in a way that doesn’t feel effortful.
He discovered that there are certain parameters for how you get into flow. Firstly, you have to choose a clear goal. You have to say ‘I want to play this guitar’, ‘I want to paint this canvas’ and set aside all your other goals. That goal has to be meaningful to you. I know nothing about the guitar, I don’t care about the guitar, I like the sound of guitars but I’m never going to play it. If I chose the guitar it wouldn’t work, I wouldn’t go into flow.
The next parameter and I think this is the most important, is that it’s got to be something at the edge of your abilities. If you’re doing something too easy you don’t get into a state of flow. If you were middle-ranking climber, you don’t want to climb over the garden wall, equally you don’t want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro that’s going to be too daunting. You want to climb something a little bit higher and harder than the last thing you climbed.
Mihaly made all these incredible discoveries about flow, about how important it is for human psychology, about how easy it makes attention. But he also discovered that flow states are very fragile. Crucially, if you are disrupted, as we are all being interrupted all the time at the moment, your sense of flow just dissolves. Flow is almost like a dream. If you’re shaken awake all the time, you won’t dream. If you’re interrupted all the time you won’t flow.
We live in a culture that is now constantly interrupting us. We’re experiencing a lot of flow disruption and in a way, I feel like what we live in is a conflict between the world Skinner wanted to build and the world Mihaly identified. We live in a world dominated by technologies literally based on Skinner’s insights. When you look at people endlessly posing for selfies to get likes on Instagram, they are like Skinner’s pigeons with a six-pack and Piña Colada. Do we want to be Skinner’s pigeons or do we want to be like Mihaly’s painters? I think that’s the choice we face now.
Moore: Reading that really hit home because it made me realize how easy that state was to get into when I was younger and yet since becoming involved so much more in the pressures of working and the daily stresses then I have those feelings so much less now.
Hari: But it’s not aging, I think it’s really important because Mihaly looked at age and age doesn’t correlate with flow states. What it is, is the way we work now which is quite different to how we worked in the past. Not to romanticize the past, plenty of things are better now.
I interviewed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, a man named Professor Earl Miller. He said ‘look you have to understand one thing more than anything else, you can only consciously think about one thing at a time. This is just a fundamental limitation of the human brain and it hasn’t changed for 40,000 years’. You can only think about one thing at a time. What’s happened is we bought into a kind of delusion which is that we can think about many things at the same time. We believe that I can talk to you but check my texts and I can also watch the television in the background. But what Professor Miller and many other scientists discovered is that when you think you’re doing lots of things at the same time, in fact, you are juggling between them. You are mentally juggling. Your consciousness papers over the process of juggling, but you are juggling. That comes with four really big costs.
The first is called the ‘switch cost’. If I look at my phone now and I look back at you, I just looked at my texts, it only takes two seconds but it doesn’t because my mind has to refocus on what we were talking about. It’s been disrupted. I’ve not just lost flow, I’ve actually lost the train of my thought for a second.
The second cost is that as you do that, you start to make mistakes, inevitably you make mistakes when you are switching between things, your error rate goes up and you have to backtrack to fix those mistakes. The third is there’s a big cost for your creativity. Over time your mind will start to free associate, it will start to make connections between different things you’ve experienced. If your mind is jammed up, so much of your bandwidth is taken on switching and correcting, you lose a significant amount of that time that produces creativity. Fourth, you remember less because it takes mental energy to encode your experiences into memories. If you are spending a lot of your bandwidth switching you’re not doing that.
The way Professor Miller put it to me is that we are living in a perfect storm of cognitive degradation as a result of distraction. We are jammed up with this. The results of this are quite hardcore if you look at some of the studies. There was a small study that was done for the tech company Hewlett-Packard. They got a group of workers and they split them into two groups. The first group was told, just do your work and you’re not going to receive any distractions by phone or text or email. The second group was disrupted with phone calls, texts and emails at a normal rate, and they measured their IQ while this was happening.
The people who were distracted, as a result of distraction had an IQ that was 10 points lower than the people who were just doing one thing. To give a sense of comparison, that’s double the dip your IQ you get when you’re stoned. You would be better off sitting at your desk smoking a fat spliff and just doing one thing than sitting at your desk and trying to respond to constant distractions while doing your work.
There was another study by Carnegie Mellon University where they got 138 students, they split them into two groups and they gave them all the same exam. One group was told ‘normal exam conditions, just do the exam, you can’t have your phone’. The second group was told, ‘you can receive and send text messages’. The second group, the one that got texting, did 20% less well on the test on average. Now we’re all losing that 20% of brain capacity all the time pretty much at the moment. You can see that’s not something to go, oh I’m just older now than I was then, but it’s not that you’re older it’s there’s been a profound change in the environment. That’s not the only one, but there’s been a profound change in the environment that deeply degrades your ability to focus and pay attention.
Moore: Throughout the book, there is this theme of the rise of technology that can track and manipulate us. You touched on issues there that have been on the radar quite recently, the increasing use of social media, the rise of digital surveillance. Some listening might have seen the film ‘The Social Dilemma’ and you spent time with the writers of that film, Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, although your book considers much wider issues than just the use of technology. When we’re considering social media and search engines, such as Google, we seem to be designing to distract intentionally. Is that what you found in your research for the book?
Hari: Yes, this is something I learned from a lot of the people in Silicon Valley who had actually designed the world in which we now live who feel really uncomfortable about what their creations have done. I think it’s really important to understand and this is something that really changes how I think about it. Some of this distraction is inherent to the technology, but a huge amount of the degradation of our attention is not due to the technology itself, it’s due to the current business model of the technology and the way that technology is designed.
Let’s start with a really basic question which is, Facebook will tell you lots of things. It will tell you your grandmother’s birthday, it will tell you if there’s been a terrorist attack and if your friends and loved ones are safe. There is something Facebook doesn’t do. Very often you’ll be sitting at home and you’ll think ‘oh I wonder which of my friends are free and would like to meet up?’ There is no button on Facebook that says, ‘which of my friends are nearby and free and would like to meet up?’ That would be a really popular button I’m sure everyone listening would think oh I’d like to have that option. Why doesn’t Facebook provide it?
When you follow the trail of the answer to that question, I think it helps us to understand a lot of what’s going on. Facebook’s business model at the moment and all the major social media sites business model is essentially to make money out of two things. The first is obviously they sell advertising, you look at Facebook you see an advert. Okay, that’s pretty straightforward.
The second is every time you do anything on Facebook, you message your grandmother, you like something, you dislike something, whatever it might be. That information is being sorted and selected. It’s gathered and selected to build up a profile of you, which they then sell to advertisers so advertisers can target you.
The minute you put your phone down, every minute you’re not looking at your phone, those companies are losing money because they don’t get the advertising and they get less information on you. Every minute you stare at your phone they make more money. Your distraction is their fuel. Every time you regain your attention to do something else, that is a disaster for them. Their designers, who are not evil people by any means, these are very clever, sophisticated people, dedicating all their energy to figuring out how do I keep you scrolling.
Now once you understand that you can see why that button doesn’t exist. If it said, well, oh my friend Bob is around the corner and he wants to go for a pint, I would put my phone down. I’d turn off the phone, I go and sit with Bob. I wouldn’t talk to Bob through Facebook, I would talk with him in the real world which we all know makes us feel much better. That would be a disaster for their share price.
Everything they do is a result of the business model, not as a result of individual cruelty on the part of the people. They are not Bond villains but the business model makes that decision for them. The products are designed to distract us, they are designed to disrupt our attention. There are many ways in which these models harm our attention that flow directly from this business model. The solution to that is we have to deal with the business model.
In the 1970s, people used to paint their houses with lead paint and then it was discovered that this causes profound damage to children’s attention and IQ. What did we do? We banned the lead in paint. We didn’t ban paint, I’m sitting in a room that’s painted, so are you. We just got rid of the lead in the paint. In the same way, we can ban that specific attention raiding business model, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to have social media, it just means it works on very different principles.
Moore: I think you do start to feel quite differently when you start to realize that your attention is a product that the social media giants want. That puts a rather different spin on it rather than seeing it as the simple, benign activity of seeing what your friends are up to.
Hari: Exactly, Tristan Harris, who is one of the people I most admire, is a former Google engineer who worked deeply on this. There’s a moment that really chills me. He worked on the Gmail team at the time it was being developed. There was this moment where someone said, ‘Hey, why don’t we make it so that every time someone gets an email their phone vibrates?’ Everyone said, ‘oh that’s a good idea’. Then he describes just in the next few weeks walking around San Francisco in Palo Alto where he was and just hearing and seeing people’s phones vibrating and realizing that was happening all over the world. In fact, there were 11 billion interruptions every day as a result of that decision and he thought ‘oh my God what are we doing?’
There are these moments where you realize how there were these decisions made in a specific context that we can undo. It doesn’t have to be like this. People designing it don’t like it. One of the former Google engineers I interviewed, James Williams, spoke once at a technology conference, hundreds and hundreds of people were there. These are people who are designing the world in which we live. He said, “Could anyone here put up their hand if you want to live in the world that we are designing?” Not one person put up their hand. This is about changing the incentives for those people, the financial incentives so that we can get to a saner model.
Moore: I think many of us struggle with that sense of having to collude with social media, almost feeling it’s a necessary evil or experiencing the feeling of missing out if you don’t use it or having to use it for promotional purposes. How do we not march to their tune? Are there ways that we can think differently about using technology for promotional purposes or for connection?
Hari: It’s a really important question. The first thing is what we can do as individuals, and as you know, I tried a very extreme solution for my book. I spent three months entirely without the internet and I tell that story in the book. That helped my attention enormously, and then I came back and I was as bad as I’d ever been. I went to see James Williams, the former Google engineer who is now a really important philosopher of attention. He was in Moscow so I went to see him there.
I remember James saying to me, “Johann you’re thinking about this the wrong way. Trying to individually have a digital detox is fine if you want, it will help you a bit. But”, he said, “it’s like thinking the solution to air pollution is to wear a gas mask one day a week”. I mean fine, I’m not against gas masks, they might give you some relief, but you have to go to the root of the problem.
I think there are lots of things we can do as individuals. I don’t know if you can see in my office here, I’ve got what is called a kSafe. It’s a plastic timed safe where you can lift the top, put your phone in and you twist the top and it will lock away your phone for however long you tell it to. I use that every day to put my phone away for at least four hours. On my laptop that I’m speaking to you through I have Freedom, an app that cuts you off from the internet. I have lots of personal things that I do that I write about in the book. I’m in favor of all these interventions, they are valuable and important. I’m also in favor of being honest with people, that will only get you so far.
There’s a deeper layer of solution to this, which is that we have to actually take on the forces that are stealing our focus and defeat them. We have to stop them from doing this. At the moment it’s like someone is pouring itching powder over us and then we’re being told by the people pouring itching powder over us, ‘you know, you might want to meditate, it would help you with all the scratching’. We need to go to the sources of these problems, which include technology. I remember when I first thought about this thinking, ‘that sounds really daunting’. As James Williams put it to me ‘systemic problems require systemic solutions’ and I began to think about it in relation to wider social struggle.
I’m 42 for a few more weeks. When my grandmothers were 42 years old, it was 1962. I thought about their lives. One of my grandmothers was a working-class Scottish woman living in the Scottish tenements. One of them was a Swiss peasant woman, which is how they would have described it then, living on a mountain in Switzerland. My grandmothers left school when they were 13 because no one cared about educating girls. My Swiss grandmother was actually brilliant at drawing and painting. No one wanted to hear that, it was ‘shut up, get married’. My Scottish grandmother went to work in a laundry. She wanted to stay at school, no one cared.
By the time they were 42, the age I am now, my Swiss grandmother didn’t even have the vote. Four percent of the members of Parliament in Britain were women. There were no women heads of companies, there were no women police officers or female senior police officers. Men controlled almost everything. It was legal for my grandmothers to be raped by their husbands. They weren’t allowed to have bank accounts in their own names because they were married women. The degree of male power is hard to get your head around.
Now, there is still a long way to go and I appreciate for the women listening it’s extremely annoying to hear a man mansplain this. But if I look at my niece who is now 17 and loves to draw like her great grandmother loved to draw, the gap between my grandmother’s life and my niece’s life is staggering. Now when my niece draws we say, ‘amazing you’re going to go to art school, we love you, you’re great’. Even crazed misogynists would not suggest that my niece should not be allowed to have a bank account, should not be allowed to vote, or it should be legal to rape her. These things would be unsayable and unthinkable quite rightly.
Why did that change happen? It did not happen because powerful people decided to hand it down from on high. It happened because ordinary women and some sympathetic men banded together and said ‘this is bullshit, we’re not going to tolerate this anymore, this isn’t right’. And they fought, and they fought, and they fought, and they fought. Eventually, on many issues they prevailed, there’s still a long way to go, I stress that again and in some ways we’ve been going backwards in some areas.
There was a big fight, and just like the feminist movement made it possible for women to reclaim their bodies. I think we need, and there is already developing, an attention movement to reclaim our minds. We need to take on the forces that are doing this to us. They are not popular. They are powerful in some ways but they are weak in others. There are different ways our society can work and run that do not trash and invade our focus. We’ve got to take on those people, we’ve got to take on those forces and we’ve got to prevail over them.
That requires a shift in our psychology because, while there are things individuals can do and I talk about them a lot in the book, we also need to get out of this mindset of blaming ourselves or just asking for tiny little things. We are not medieval peasants at the Court of King Zuckerberg begging for crumbs of attention from his table. We are the free citizens of democracies and we can reclaim our minds if we want to.
Moore: The book talks about the combined impacts of poor attention, poor diet, environmental pollutants, lack of time in nature, lack of sleep, overwork, chronic stress and so much more. It’s difficult to read the book and not feel this couldn’t all be better designed to prevent us from responding to crises and social problems. The common factor seems to be putting profit before people. Do you think that the push for sustained economic growth is really the underlying issue behind all of this?
Hari: There’s this question that emerged early in my research that I slightly backed away from thinking about for a long time. I went to Copenhagen in Denmark to interview the first scientist to prove that our collective attention span really is shrinking. This is Professor Sune Lehmann, an amazing scientist at the Technical University of Denmark, he’s a professor of applied mathematics. Sune made this really important breakthrough and he did it for a personal reason. He’s got these two young sons who he loves that come and jump in his bed and jump all over him every morning. Every morning he would instinctively reach for his phone before he’d reach for them, and he thought ‘there is something wrong here’, so he decided to do research.
Initially, he did quite a small study but it really built into this massive thing involving many scientists. He looked initially at Twitter. As anyone listening who uses Twitter knows, there are certain trending topics that are the things that large numbers of people are talking about. They are identified by Twitter and they trend and you can look at them. Initially, he looked at how long a trending topic lasts for. In 2013, the average trending topic would last for 17.5 hours, so people would talk about one thing for 17.5 hours. By the time you got to 2016, that was down to 12 hours and it’s continued to decline. That’s interesting, but maybe it’s a quirk of Twitter.
He starts to look at a huge range of other datasets to see if we are talking about any one thing less and less. He discovered across the entire internet (with one exception; Wikipedia which is interesting and unexplained) whether it is Google searches, Reddit, whatever it might be, people were focusing less and less on any one thing. It turned out this was true of things like when a movie is a hit, how long do people carry on seeing it after it’s been an initial splash, things like that.
They looked at books going back to the 1880s, so from 1880 to the present day. There’s a technical technique that can identify new concepts that emerge in books, it’s called detecting engrams. Think about a phrase like ‘no deal Brexit’. No one used the phrase ‘no deal Brexit’ before 2016 in those halcyon days, and I’m guessing in five years’ time no one will use ‘no deal Brexit’ again. So the phrase emerges and then disappears, there are phrases like that throughout history.
You can train an algorithm to detect these new phrases, detect the engram and see how long people talk about each new topic. It’s effectively a way of discovering the equivalent of what trended on Twitter in the past, it’s a really clever method. What they discovered is really striking. Since the 1880s with each decade that passed, people discussed new concepts for shorter and shorter periods. The graph looks exactly like the graph of Twitter since Twitter was created to the present day. Which is fascinating and bizarre.
I remember Sune saying the same when he looked at the data, ‘goddamn it, this really is happening, there really is a shrinking collective attention span’. He’s trying to figure out why would that be? They built an equivalent of the models that predict future changes in the climate. They basically found that if you want to make information behave like that what you have to do is flood the system with information. If you flood the system with information, anyone in that system will be able to deal with that information less and less. It’s like we’re drinking from a fire hose is how he thinks of it, we’re sprayed with this enormous amount of information.
When you massively pump people with information you degrade the amount they can possibly process for obvious reasons. It was really challenging because the temptation is to say ‘oh this is a problem to do with the internet’ and of course the factors that we just talked about are very real. But actually what Sune showed is that attention has been degrading for all of my life, for all of your parents’ lives or your grandparents’ lives. In fact, in our great grandparents’ lives, this has been consistent. What is the underlying thing that’s causing that?
There’s a big debate about this and I offer this much more tentatively than I’ve offered the other evidence because it’s not clear. But people like Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who is one of the leading social scientists in Norway, have argued that what’s going on is related to the phenomenon of economic growth. We live in an economy and a society built entirely around the principle of economic growth. If political leaders guarantee economic growth they get reelected most of the time if they don’t oversee economic growth they get chucked out. Same with heads of companies, if the company grows they’re rewarded, if the company shrinks they’re shafted.
Professor Eriksen was talking about how we secure growth. There are two ways; you can identify a new market or you can get an existing market to consume more of the same thing. For example, if I can get you to watch television and at the same time look at your phone, I’ve doubled the market for advertising. You’re exposed to twice the amount of advertising that you were exposed to before. Clearly, there are still new markets being identified but a lot of economic growth is currently coming from this invasion.
Why do we sleep less, a major cause of attention problems that I talk about in the book? Well, a big factor is that we’re amped up all the time to be buying stuff and doing stuff. We’re in this constantly agitated state. As we build an attention movement that’s trying to think about the reasons why we can’t think as clearly as we want to, sooner or later we will have to reckon with the fact that we have a model based on economic growth that requires greater and greater levels of consumption when actually to reclaim our attention we have to consume less.
By the way, we’re going to have to deal with this model of economic growth anyway because of the ecological consequences of it. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. There are many reasons why we’re going to have to deal with economic growth and move towards models that exist which are based on what’s called the steady-state economy where you don’t try and grow, you try to stay where you are.
Interestingly, COVID was the first time in our lives and in a very long time that something other than economic growth was made the organizing principle of our societies. It happened because of an emergency, which is not the ideal circumstance in which to do it of course, but that was interesting. It’s a moment when we decided collectively to slow down. I don’t want to be glib about that, we’ve lost five million people at a conservative estimate, it’s caused a lot of psychological pain and all sorts of problems.
But also for a lot of us, there was a feeling of relief in the world slowing down in addition to all this stress and horror. A feeling that maybe we don’t all need to race around all the time, maybe there’s a different way to be. I think that insight can be valuable when we take it forward as we emerge from the pandemic which hopefully one day we will.
Moore: You mention climate change and the environment. As we know, the world is facing what can only be described as the most significant and potentially life-changing challenge that it’s ever faced in reckoning with climate change. To address it will require us to put aside cultural and political differences and collaborate on a scale previously unknown in human history. Your book paints a pretty stark picture of the effect of surveillance capitalism and a world built on economic growth. Do you have hope that we can really respond to climate change in a meaningful way if we are permanently and powerfully distracted?
Hari: We can’t if we are permanently distracted, but we absolutely can if we move beyond this crisis. I think you’re totally right, and this was really sobering to me, lots of the cities where I spent time researching this book were then choked by fires.
I remember being with Tristan Harris the former Google engineer who was so brave in speaking out about all this. One day, Tristan and I were walking around San Francisco just talking and he’s saying, the thing I’m most worried about in this is – he didn’t put it quite like this but – we’re losing our superpower, our ability to pay attention at the time when we most need it. Then, exactly a year later, there were the huge California wildfires. Tristan’s own house burned down and those streets we walked on were choked with smoke and glowing orange in the middle of the day.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Sydney because I’ve got a lot of friends there and one day I was on the phone. It was the height of the 2019 black summer when at one point the entire coast of the state of New South Wales was on fire. Three billion animals burned to death or had to flee. It was maybe two or three weeks into that black summer and I was on the phone with my friend Andy in Sydney. He lives in Central Sydney, it’s not like the middle of the countryside or anything. His smoke alarm had started going off, and he said ‘oh we got this problem’. What had happened was, all over Sydney in offices and homes, smoke alarms started to go off because the density of the smoke in the air was so great that the buildings thought they were on fire even though the wildfires were really far away.
You realize in those moments that the systems we build in our homes to keep us safe are working, but the bigger political system that’s designed to keep us safe is not working. I think it’s really important to understand the way in which this is disrupting our ability to deal with global warming.
You go back to what we were saying about the business model for social media. The longer you scroll the more money they get. That’s the sole purpose of the algorithm is to keep you scrolling. When those algorithms scan people and figure out what keeps you scrolling, they bump into a quirk of human psychology called negativity bias. Basically, you will stare at something frightening and angering longer than you will stare at something that makes you feel good. It’s why on a motorway if you’ve ever driven past a car crash, you stare at the car crash longer than you stare at the lovely flowers by the side of the motorway. It’s probably for a perfectly good evolutionary reason, it makes more sense to stare at something that might hurt you than something that won’t hurt you. You can even see this when 10-week old babies will stare at an angry face longer than they stare at a smiling face for exactly that reason.
But this creates a disastrous effect online. A study by NYU found that if you insert angry moral disagreement into your tweets, they are 20% more likely to be shared. There was actually a horrifying study on Facebook, the Pew Research Center found that if you put moral disgust into your tweets you double the amount they get liked and shared. If it’s enraging it’s engaging. The algorithm will start selecting for things that make you angry, not because the algorithm wants you to be angry, the algorithm doesn’t care how you feel. But the algorithm knows if you’re angry you’re more likely to keep scrolling.
Now, what that does is produce part of this catastrophic polarization that we’re seeing across all our societies. The fact that it’s happening everywhere tells you something. The fact that we are locked in increasing bands of profound hatred. If we are being constantly amped up to be artificially angry and uncomprehending towards each other, tribalized, polarized, we absolutely will not deal with global warming.
As you can see from the COVID response. We’ve done some good things but it’s promoted artificial polarization and anti-scientific polarization in all sorts of ways. That was where the social media companies tried to clamp down and even there, the algorithm selects so heavily for it that they couldn’t stop their machines from promoting polarization. This isn’t just my view or Tristan’s view, this is what Facebook’s own internal research says when it got leaked to us by Frances Haugen last year.
We can’t deal with any of our problems if we don’t have the ability to focus, pay attention, distinguish truth from lies and hold people accountable over time. I would argue that a prerequisite towards solving the climate crisis, which we don’t have a lot of time to do but we need to get on with, is solving this attention crisis. If we’re interacting through anger-based video games, which is essentially what social media has become, then we’re not going to be able to solve this. This is about overlooking differences, coming together, uniting, holding power to account.
I’m 42, younger listeners might not even remember this but when we were younger I remember being terrified about the destruction of the ozone layer. There was a chemical component called CFCs that was in hairsprays and fridges and various things, and it was causing a hole in the ozone layer which protects us from the sun’s rays. We were rightly very worried about that.
What happened is the world was warned about the scientific evidence. We listened to the scientific evidence. We saw that it was true and we held our politicians accountable. We made them do the right thing, banned CFCs and hairsprays and get different kinds of fridges and held them accountable and now the ozone layer is healing. I don’t think if that crisis happened now we would do that. I think you would have crazy conspiracy theorists saying that the ozone layer doesn’t exist, or the hole was made by Jewish space lasers launched by George Soros or whatever. We wouldn’t be able to distinguish the truth from the lie and hold our politicians accountable.
Also, I don’t think we’d have the attention span, as you see from the COVID response. I’m bored now, we tried social distancing and masks for a few months, let’s just pretend the virus is gone. I don’t think we will be capable of doing those things in the current information ecology we’ve created. But we don’t have to live in this information ecology. As James Williams said to me, the axe existed for 1.4 million years before someone thought to put a handle on it. The internet has existed for less than 10,000 days. We can change these things, we absolutely have in our power to change these things, but we have to understand what’s genuinely going on and then we have to deal with it.
Moore: Johann, thank you so much. Reading the book was so many things all at once. It was terrifying, it was sobering, it was fascinating but it was hopeful too because you do talk about steps we could take toward solutions. I like the way that you describe it not as a self-help book that has a nice tidy solution at the end, it’s things that people can start to engage in to start to change the narrative and change the approach. I think it’s incredibly timely and I’m so grateful that you can find time to join us today to talk about it.
Hari: Thank you so much, I really enjoyed it. I really appreciate your engaging with the book so deeply. Anyone who wants any more information about the book can go to StolenFocusBook.com. You can get the book or the audiobook. You can also listen for free to interviews with lots of the experts we’ve talked about like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I think it was the last interview he ever did. Tristan Harris, loads and loads of the people you can listen to audio with them.
I absolutely believe we can deal with this and this doesn’t have to happen, but we do need to understand what’s really happening to us and that our attention is being stolen from us.
You can hear Johann talking with Dr Lucy Johnstone in a Disorder 4 Everyone crucial conversation happening on April 28 2022 from 2pm to 5pm GMT. To register, visit Eventbrite.com.