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The Attention Resource Problem: Applications for Consumer Neuroscience

By David Rosenstein and Erik du Plessis
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There are many definitions of attention, but most narrowly define it as a cognitive resource with limited quantity, which may be depleted through expenditures of attention during information processing. We propose there may be greater utility in using a hybrid approach to defining attention, one that falls somewhere between how psychologists and economists define this aspect of human functioning. Further understanding and defining of attention as a resource may be beneficial to both cognitive scientists and economists who are involved in the field of consumer neuroscience. We believe that a new conceptualization within this broader context will provide clients with further reaching and more impactful understandings of the role of attention within their brand.

Introduction

From a psychological perspective, attention is often defined as focused mental engagement on an item of information or perceptual experience. As stimuli come into our awareness, we attend to them and decide whether we will act on them or not. From an economists’ perspective, attention is often defined differently, as a limited resource that a person has only so much of. Psychologists also see attention as a limited resource; limited not so much in quantity as in distribution. Preferential processing of some items must occur to the detriment of others (Findlay & Gilchrist). We propose a combined approach to understanding and quantifying attention, one that draws upon both the economists’ and psychologists’ frameworks. In practical terms, this means that attention needs to be measured in a comparative context; not just one item or stimulus at a time, as it often is in current consumer neuroscience research.

The quantification of attention as a resource has been attempted mostly by economists, who are interested in understanding the diminishing effects of information on attention systems and the broader associated impacts and consequences at a larger population level (Davenport & Beck). In contrast, most of the psychological definitions of attention tend to focus almost exclusively on the individual intrinsic level (Teixeira). We agree with economists that there is a broader social context to attention, especially in our rapidly accelerating information age, in which it is largely accepted that information is growing exponentially and becoming more readily available (Teixeira). This may be especially true in areas such as marketing and advertising. In these areas, we may be dealing with a poverty of attentional resources. For example, information overload exacerbated by accelerating technological developments – such as smartphones and associated social media – may be contributing significantly to the erosion of attentional resources across global populations, through reductions or disruptions of attention spans (Greenfield; Galloway; Teixeira).

Attention as a scarce resource

Many psychologists and behavioral economists have long been aware of the problem of limited attention (Falkinger). As Herbert Simon pointed out in the early 1970s, we live in an information-rich world, where a new scarcity arises, namely, the scarcity of the resource that information consumes, attention. Information consumes the attention of its recipients. Further, living in societies of ever-increasing information, we are likely to produce poverties of attention (Simon; Falkinger). Therefore, the examination of attention as a resource has become pertinent across market economies.

The “attention economy” is a term used to understand attention as a scarce resource, whereby economic theory may be used to understand the various problems that derive from attention scarcity constraints (Crawford). Thinking of attention as an economy of supply and demand allows us to understand that supply constraints create new problems to market choices. If scarcity exists in attention within a market segment, or if there are massive amounts of competition in a segment – exploding information demands and options for choice – then new approaches need to be considered by brands. The availability of attention as a limited resource, therefore, becomes a fundamental question in market research, brand execution strategies, and communications. From a psychological perspective, attention precedes and underpins other cognitive and affective processes in consumers’ responses to products and brands. Without adequately understanding whether an individual is attending to a target stimulus, researchers cannot determine the extent to which emotional and cognitive responses are activated in a meaningful way.

From an economic perspective, conceptualizing attention as an increasingly scarce resource in high demand by competing brands requires consumer neuroscience practitioners to understand attention as more than a brain mechanism in cognitive functioning, but also as a requisite resource essential for decision making and an essential component of brand equity (Teixeira). Incorporating this perspective enables brands to have a better understanding of how to maximize their strategies for capturing and holding this key resource of their consumers. According to the Center for Mental Health at Schools, the capacity for attention appears to be shrinking in response to exponential increases in technological innovations and acceleration (The Center is co-directed by Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor and operates under the auspices of the School Mental Health Project, Dept. of Psychology, UCLA).

Consumer neuroscience practitioners often focus on individual brands or marketing communications, measuring how attention toward that one stimulus is allocated among a sample of respondents. When examining attention as an economic resource, however, one must see the brand and its associated messaging as embedded in a whole matrix of competing brand messages and communications, all vying for the same attention resources. When taking this into consideration, consumer neuroscience practitioners can begin to present their findings within this broader context, providing clients with deeper and more impactful understandings of the role of attention within their brand.

Conclusion

Approaching attention through the neuroscience lens only, as an endogenous cognitive process, may undermine the extent to which competition for attention may contribute to how attention is allocated in real-world marketing and shopping settings. By repurposing and widening the lens through which we view attention to include the economist’s perspective, consumer neuroscientists can conduct research that examines attention more realistically, providing richer, deeper, and more meaningful data sets for their clients.

About the authors
David Rosenberg comes from a background in Clinical Psychology, has vast knowledge in the field of Neuroscience, and has completed his Ph.D. on the basis of using fMRI neuroimaging technologies. As the scientific backbone of the Neural SenseTM team, he ensures that all projects are both scientifically and ethically sound.

Erik du Plessis passed away in 2019. By putting this article in the spotlight we want to remember his great mind and vision. He specialized in brand and advertising research and was a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School’s unit of Neuro-Decision-making. And he was a regular conference speaker on matters of the brain, emotions, advertising and brand strategy, i.e neuromarketing. 

Reference available on request via office@nmsba.com

This was originally published in Insights Magazine, NMSBA members have access to the full archive of this quarterly magazine on neuromarketing. Interested in joining? Check the options.