Attention economy

by Sebastian Benthall

The phrase “attention economy” denotes the idea that attention is one of the most important scarce resources at work in the economy, I think this is a profound insight that has not yet been sufficiently developed.

I need to investigate further into what has been written on the subject already, but my impression is that so far the idea has the most currency in the world of slick web business, and almost none in the world of rigorous theoretical economics.

Here are some reasons, off the top of my head, why I think that’s too bad:

  • Since attention, and the limits of our ability to attend, largely determine what information we are able to pull from the environment and how much we are able to process it, a theory of attention in economics is necessary for an accurate theory of bounded rationality.
  • Economics has been pretty poor at accounting for the role of advertising in the economy. Since the advertising industry is largely concerned with capturing the attention of audiences, a theory of the role of attention in the economy would provide a lot of explanatory force.
  • My understanding is that robust results in hedonic psychology show that happiness is primarily a matter of attention and only secondarily a mater of circumstances. To the extent that economic theories attempt to be normative and utilitarian (as many do), these psychological results demand that economics notice what people are attending to.

I think that a rigorous theory of the attention economy could turn a lot of economics on its head. I hope to approach this subject again in future posts.