The Value of Shared Experience

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Our Interdependence

Never could we have anticipated a time in our lives where we would be advised to have as little, or no contact at all with other human beings. There are now many states where legal action can be taken against anyone bringing together groups larger than 10–15 people. This is not normal, it doesn’t feel right, we hope it ends soon, yet here we are. While our current situation is far from ideal and far from over, there will certainly be lessons we may choose to carry with us when the dust begins to settle. In the meantime however, we’ve lost pieces of our days, and in turn ourselves, that we didn’t ever think would ever disappear.

A few months ago as I was lazily watching a movie with my (at the time) three and a half year old niece, I was reminded how much people rely on one another in social experiences. Every time I slowly began to nod off, she served as my wake up call, ensuring that while we were watching this movie together, my focus was not going to be anywhere else but on the TV. Opening my eyelids, grabbing my hand, or poking me in the side, she made sure — we laughed at the same time, jumped at the same moments, but most importantly enjoyed each others presence.

Judging from the majority of my daily interactions, it seems unlikely that her need to share an experience with me was a learned behavior. This was an intuitive response, it was her responsibility to share whatever she was watching with me, so that we held the experience and memory together. To me this was more enough proof showing that we are programmed as social creatures, but as we mature and grow out of the school systems, our understanding of the value social groups hold in our lives diminishes. Quite the opposite of children, whom we assume to have short attention spans, there are many people completely incapable of focusing their full attention on any shared group activity, and at worst — a conversation (you’ll notice how truly awful many are at paying attention the next time you try speaking with someone and rather than listening to what you’re saying — they’re lost in their own mental world, only concerned with whatever word vomit they want to force feed you next).

Social Perspective: COVID-19 Edition

The need to feel belonging in our communities is hardwired into our DNA, yet while we shuffle through the routine of everyday life it’s easy to overlook the barista, bartender, or cashier that remembered your name and exact order from the last time you were in the store. While for many — the opportunities to quarantine and work from home are possible, there are plenty of men and women that will continue to be on the front line every single day to make sure that our society continues to function. The most apparent and highest risk jobs in normal circumstances: doctors, nurses, cops and firefighters, now have to figure out ways to continue to do their jobs successfully, knowing well that the odds of becoming ill are increased greatly by doing so. To continue going out, to what is in many ways battle, everyday is courage most of us will never have to deal with. Let’s also not forget countless others professions who have now become directly in harms way, grocery store employees, train engineers, garbage collectors – keeping the essentials of our society running flawlessly. We need them now, and we need to thank them. My hope is that we come out of these strange times with a rekindled appreciation for humanity and the frailty of the things we become so accustomed to having everyday.

It’s quite possible that shared in-group attention may be the largest contributing piece of the puzzle toward understanding humans’ extraordinary inclination toward social learning. Being a part of something larger than ourselves, may help us assemble a better picture of the world as a whole and how we each make our contributions to the continuous evolution of our species. Along with that, today we can see the psychological power of co-experienced social media which may reside, in part, in it’s ability to supply audiences with a shallow/faux experience of shared in-group attention, without any feelings of empathy or love that is inevitable in person.

Action Item: Write down the things that you miss doing — even the smallest, most minuscule things. When life returns back to normal, periodically take a look at this list and let us not forget that it’s all something that could be taken away again.

Shared Social Value

Getty Images

When we share experiences, it causes us to feel as though we are thinking in the same way and increases how much thinking we do about one another. We may assume that shared interactions are exclusive to when we are verbally communicating with one another — but every day people spend time together in the absence of explicit communication. Take examples such as a gym or a church. Our lives frequently unfold socially, but also silently. Yet even in silence, when we share experiences, the mental space inhabited together is a place where our emotions and thoughts are amplified. These silent moments can be just as beneficial to our happiness. There are plenty of aphorisms to support the idea that we are social animals as well, and that our satisfaction in life is derived from co-experiences: “Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste” (Charlotte Bronte); [personal favorite] “Ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none” (Snoop Dogg); “You cannot live alone in this world. The way to enjoy life is to meet people like you, to exchange ideas, to learn from each other.” (Eliud Kipchoge)

There are a handful of reasons that social interactions may benefit our species in the long run, and because of this it becomes apparent that we now almost always enjoy any activity more when there are other people involved. From a study in which each party watched videos either solo or with another person and then rated their happiness levels on a scale of 1–10 “Participants have a strong desire to experience commonality with the inner states of other individuals. Considering how others feel about an experience is part of the process of establishing a “shared-reality,” which helps people to better understand the world [3739]. Numerous studies have noted that communicating with others’ about a topic can fundamentally alter the communicator’s memory, judgement, and impressions about that topic [40]. Similarly, observing others’ actions can influence one’s memory of their own actions.”

A specific component of personhood may involve the self as an agent of information [52]. In this light, the motivation to share experiences may not only be driven by a desire for social connection, but a desire to exchange experiential information with others, with the ultimate goal of facilitating decision-making and constructing a collective store of knowledge.” — Eshin Jolly, The Social Value

Group Think

Along with casual moments of shared experience and connection we have in our lives, this camaraderie is taken to a new level when large groups gather with a unified goal. Races, parades, games, rallies — the energy and sense of connection we feel during these moments are heightened to extremes. We can even remember these times with greater and more vivid detail: songs the band played before a big basketball game or what the weather was like when we saw our favorite band in concert last.

Nearly impossible to watch this without your heart rate being elevated

We participate in events like this as becoming part of a tribe, we now have a unique tie to everyone that we shared that moment with, we can reminisce later about what we experienced or what we learned. The connection that we have with those people, to that specific moment in time, is something we cling to.

As we become increasingly aware of the immense value in-person interactions hold in our lives, I hope that these thoughts and feelings we have now are not lost once we return to our daily routines. I hope that this is just the break we’ve needed in order to take a big step back and to look at things we’ve always taken for granted: shaking hands with a new friend, visiting family, attending a yoga class, the buzz of conversation in a coffee shop, or even the chaotic atmosphere from a late night bar crowd.

Evolutionary Outlook

“The ability to experience the world from a shared perspective has been theorized to be a biologically primitive adaptation that gave humans an unprecedented capacity for collective coordination and behavior…[which leads to] information that is co-attended with one’s social group conferring a critical evolutionary advantage.” Garriy Shteynberg and Evan P. Apfelbaum — The Power of Shared Experience

This means, if the number and complexity of skills acquired through social learning positively impact survival and/or reproduction, lineages with more opportunities for social learning will be prepared to respond and adapt with their increased set of learned skills as compared to lineages with little contact between the generations or strictly independent animals. The more frequently we interact, the more opportunities there will be for sharing which creates a larger collective knowledge base for the species to be passed on for thousands of years.

Application: Surround yourself with great people, when they see patterns, new opportunities, learning experiences, you experience these as well. With minimal effort, your individual knowledge will steadily rise to the level of those you surround yourself with.

You ruin empathy by not having an opportunity to interact with other people. When you interact with other people and you see how they feel and you see their emotions and then you can put yourself in their shoes, that builds empathy.” — Esther Wojcicki

Ron Swanson practicing social distancing

Attention Economy

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Attention: An Effective Tool in a Distracted World

Times have rapidly changed within the last few decades. There are more opportunities for learning than ever before, yet the same goes for distractions. The question is: have we stopped valuing our time and allowed for our attention to be taken hostage? “Your goals are things like “spend more time with the kids,” “learn to play the guitar,” “lose twenty pounds by summer,” “finish my degree,” etc. Your time is scarce, and you know it. Your technologies on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like “Time on Site,” “Number of Video Views,” “Number of Pageviews,” and so on. Hence click-bait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications. Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it.” – Tim Wu

Without a doubt there is incentive to control a person’s attention (monetarily and persuasively). Content companies (News, soap-operas, streaming services) want to increase last quarter’s profits. To do that they need to increase advertising revenue. To increase advertising revenue they need pageviews. To increase pageviews they need people. What grabs human attention? Fear. Murder. Disease. Political campaigns do a very similar thing, but rather than the end goal being profits, it’s persuasion. We’ve become accustomed to headlines designed to play on our emotions:

“A school girl gave her lunch to a homeless man. What he did next will leave you in tears!”

“Don’t ever go to sleep without checking for these in your hotel bed.”

“Jennifer’s Botched Surgery! You’ll never believe what she looks like now.”

How to capture attention:

Fear

For nearly all of human history, our ape-like ancestors have been playing a game of survival. With lethal danger lurking around every corner, fear is a reaction that has been programmed into our DNA to capture our entire attention at an instant. It has been beneficial to the survival of our species to be weary of threats, to run away at the first sign of danger, and in fact we are doing pretty well at surviving thus far considering 99.9% of all species to ever exist are extinct. 

But now that we are living in a world with relatively low threats of death, or danger at all, we try to find new things to obsess over to create a hypothetical doomsday in our minds (i.e. trying to protect and save ourselves). Most every current media topic and conversation certainly will be the smallest blip in the grand scope of our lives, but we let these topics occupy so much mental space in our heads that it allows no room for free thought. We are living during the safest time our species have ever seen and rather than planning ahead, we get stuck in the muck of day-to-day news stories and controversy that lights up a primal part of our brain. 

“In other words, [we] faced danger from predatory animals (ranging from mammalian carnivores to venomous animals such as spiders and snakes); from hostile members of [our] own species; from invisible pathogens, bacteria and viruses; from loss of status, ostracization, and ultimately social exclusion, which in ancestral environments could mean death”

These fear strickening stories that we see are nothing new, they’ve been working for centuries and will continue to do so. Those behind the keyboards and screens understand more about human biology than we would like to think. In the early 1800’s, a popular New York newspaper ran a series of articles which we would see now as a very sarcastic joke, but at the time without access to credible sources with the internet or smartphones, it was very believable to some. The stories later became known as The Great Moon Hoax – As Grant described it, Herschel had found evidence of life forms on the moon, including such fantastic animals as unicorns, two-legged beavers and furry, winged humanoids resembling bats. The articles also offered vivid descriptions of the moon’s geography, complete with massive craters, enormous amethyst crystals, rushing rivers and lush vegetation.”

Bombardment

No sane person would argue that we have enough time to watch hundreds of Snapchat stories, comment on recent tweets, and know the score to every mid-season NBA game while still knocking out a full to-do-list. Staying up to date used to be reading one newspaper and watching an hour long segment of local news. That is not so anymore. We want to always be in the social loop for conversational purposes, but with the amount of content generated today not only is that impossible, it is also detrimental. (YouTube has roughly two human lifespans worth of new video posted in any given 24hr window~1.26 million hours vs. average human lifespan~694,000 hours. The Washington Post alone claims to publish an average of 1,200 stories, graphics, and videos per day). The journalist writing hundreds of columns per week have long since moved on from those stories that he or she was likely uninformed on to begin with. They’re now writing about the next hot button ever so pressing issue, which will surely be outdated by dozens of articles on the same topic in a matter of days.

“The world has become increasingly well connected in the past decades. This means that content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly.” says postdoc Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

Since the available amount of attention remains more or less the same, the result is that people are more rapidly made aware of something happening and lose interest more quickly. 

“Our data only supports the claim that our collective attention span is narrowing. Therefore, as a next step, it would be interesting to look into how this affects individuals, since the observed developments may have negative implications for an individual’s ability to evaluate the information they consume. Acceleration increases, for example, the pressure on journalists’ ability to keep up with an ever-changing news landscape. We hope that more research in this direction will inform the way we design new communication systems, such that information quality does not suffer even when new topics appear at increasing rates.”

(see Paxton Duff’s post on attention and actionable steps to regain control)

Modern Day Attention Harvesting

Nothing is ever free. When we find things online that we don’t pay for monetarily, we are paying with our undivided and advertiser primed attention. We become the product. The world is peaking in the age of now. Need groceries? They’ll be at your doorstep in twenty minutes. Want to watch a movie? How about instead we click through nine different documentaries, turning each off after only seven minutes (most of which time we spent looking down at our phones, aimlessly scrolling between apps waiting for a red notification bubble to show up to make us feel important). 

Television

Television delivers people to an advertiser…it is the consumer who is consumed…you are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer. He consumes you. – Richard Serra

In the early stages of MTV, it was no problem selling millions worth of advertisements through the attention captured by music videos. Moving towards the late 80’s and early 90’s however, the awe of music videos began to seem bland to audiences, which inspired creators to lean in a new direction. The decline of music videos led to the beginnings of a new kind of soap operas, albeit one in which there were no script and the actors were low paid “average-joes”. This was a major win for the network because it allowed for them to employ less script writers, and produce more content at a lower cost. Reality TV shows are wildly successful because they allow viewers to vicariously through people they watch, seeing them as not much different than themselves. We connect more with the Kardashians fighting over which NBA star to date that week than we ever could with a sci-fi movie. Shows have become popular simply to gain our attention and in turn sell that attention to advertisers. 

Image result for kardashian reality tv meme

At a similar time, exuberant real-estate developer Donald Trump was pitched a reality TV show idea he initially turned down, saying that such shows are “for the bottom-feeders of society.” But seeing an outlet to showcase his hotels, wealthy lifestyle, and an overall brand building opportunity it became something he couldn’t refuse. Now shows like The Apprentice are a dime a dozen, and becoming lower quality everyday as companies try to produce more and more content to be a few minutes ahead of competitors with every release.

The Internet

Google

In the early 2000’s (while radio, television, and even some popular sites on the internet were already showing advertising in every form) we had grown to trust Google and their simplistic search engine to provide us with unbiased and correct results, results that were unwavered by the ad money pooled in from outsiders. This was the case until Google decided to begin using GoogleAdWords to drastically increase revenue on their platform. After that decision to profit from ads with sniper-like accuracy, an insecure teen was now self diagnosing an acne problem, while Google began showing dermatologists nearby as the first two listings of their search. Google has been able to effectively strike with custom tailored advertisements at times when we are most vulnerable online, assuming anonymity on the internet.

Facebook

Facebook quickly caught on to what Google was doing and realized what a complete profile of millions of individuals they had ready at their fingertips. While they may not have had access to the questions we asked Google, Facebook was able to take sneak peeks into the daily action of our lives. Here is a video explaining Open Graph, the “magic” plug-in that allowed Facebook to tease us into oversharing everything about ourselves (showing other users you checked-in at a local restaurant, liked the band “Grateful Dead’s” page, follow a humane society, and who you listen to on Spotify. This tool was able to integrate Facebook with everything we do, see or listen to in our lives). With a more complete database profiling all users, Facebook was now much more successful in their targeted ad campaigns.

Apple

One reason for the mass of customers switching to Apple in the late 2000’s was not only because of the release of the iPhone, but because of the liberating statements and software teh company released at the time. Apple took a stand against the unruly attention market which was getting to know every detail of our entire lives when we shared information with Google, Facebook, YouTube (owned by Google) and more. The iPhone’s rise to popularity was a light in a dark tunnel, giving back the incredible access to information we have with the internet, minus all the bulky auto-playing ads halfway down the page. Not only were ads ruining the overall tech experience for everyone through pure ugliness, ads were also making pages load at inconveniently slow times. With the update to iOS9, Apple users on the app “Safari” would now have the choice to block ads, erase search tracking, and vast other amounts of privacy options.

Twitter

Seeing an opportunity ripe for attention gathering, Twitter created a feed that did all of the searching for you. No more bouncing back and forth between websites, blogs, etc. to see the various well thought out writings and posts you wanted to follow. Now every person you meet has a profile where they package up every simple idea that passes across their mind into a certain number of characters and it is conveniently shuttled in one app straight to our phones to read at a moments notice.Twitter also began showing statistics on numbers of followers – which gave you credibility, legitimacy and a level of internet fame. It began the Instagram era of social grooming online, similar to what we see in groups of primates. It is reassuring and addicting to get constant confirmation of likes on photos and requests to be someone’s online friend.

Netflix

As the internet has transformed, Netflix uncovered a long untouched vein of attention more valuable than gold. The ad-less platform encourages binge-watching, encourages you to escape from the monotony of everyday life and forget about any problems at hand. After one episode has ended, sure enough in fifteen seconds the next episode begins. One hour turns to four more quickly than any of us with a sense of control would like. 

Paying attention in a distracted world: it’s like bringing a gun to a knife fight.” – James Shelley

Image result for netflix addiction meme

While it seems as though we are fighting an uphill battle the good news is, the inability to pay attention is the norm, so we are never alone. Taking control back is no easy task and is something that must be done every day. While some argue that the tech addiction and loss of attention is purely a part of today’s world, my worry is about the loss of capacity that humankind will collectively miss out on due to our inability to focus and concentrate. 

And what are the costs to a society of an entire population conditioned to spend so much of their waking lives not in concentration and focus but rather in fragmentary awareness and subject to constant interruption?

*post was inspired by Tim Wu’s latest book, Attention Merchants*