Attention economy: ROI for your attention

December 6th, 2007 by jose

In the last month or so (sorry, we haven’t posted in a month!) I’ve been reading on and thinking about attention economy. I think it is the right paradigm to connect the different bits and pieces of productivity knowledge (we could call them hacks) floating around on the ‘net.

I could write a long intro to the attention economy ideas and how they affect the way we process information AND make decisions… but I have written a series of 4 posts on attention economy and I’d better redirect you there. So, ideally, before you continue reading this post you should have at least skimmed that series, and you should be comfortable with it.

The question I want to address on this post is this: Are we rational about how we allocate attention? This is an important topic because attention allocation to different scientific topics can make or break your career.

Economics uses the assumption that Agents are rational and, thus, markets are efficient.

But we dedicate disproportionate attention to small decisions compared to large ones, and this  does not fit with the rationality assumption:

I have long taken it as ‘given’ that we typically spend too much time and trouble over trivial monetary decisions (such as, whether to get a 4Gb or 2Gb iPod) but not enough on momentous ones (stocks or shares?  this house or that one?). Then when I come to actually make this claim in a written document I realise I have no evidence other than my own convictions, and after some time spent with Google scholar I have not come up with any.  If anyone knows of any relevant research please let me know.

(Daniel Read on the judgment and decision making [JDM] mailing list, Vol 97, issue 5)

There’s very little empirical work studying both psychologically and economically relevant variables simultaneously. Attention is a psychological variable, and return of investment is a concept from economy… and

If, as Goldhaber proposes, we can expect attention to work as currency, then we can calculate a Return of Investment (ROI) for attention.

Assume that attention can be converted to value, and that this happens over time. This is a good assumption: if we pay attention to fitness, our health improves; if we pay attention to [insert hot topic in your area here] you get publications and prestige (that may attract attention to you!).

ROI can be used to select a field of study. Everyone has a ‘hunch’ on what field will be the most productive in the short and long term. But are these intuitions accurate? Do people really switch fields according to their estimated ROI? The answer is… absolutely not. Most people I know picked their field either by whim or by accident, not by design. There are those ‘careerists’ who have the talent of picking only the hot topics (and they thrive in the current ecosystem!). But even those tend to focus on the short term (pressured by tenure-track demands etc) and their production, although impressive on paper, may have questionable long-term impact.

Here we see the effect that Daniel Read pointed out on the JDM mailing list: We don’t really spend much time pondering which line of work we’ll follow; everything feels much more like serendipity. However, small decisions, like which iPod to buy, may take a good chunk of our time.

Prestige, again, may in a way work like printed money does in our current ‘academic’ economy -which is, indeed, an attention economy!-. In previous posts, I have defended the idea that academics work for, and get paid in, prestige (not money). The role of prestige is to certify that the carrier has value, that paying attention to her will give us a good ROI. This explains why Google puts more weight on academic sites (i.e., getting one link from an academic site will do more for your pagerank than a link from a site with the same visits, but from the non-academic world).

The problem is that prestige doesn’t have all the same properties as money. It cannot be quantified, for once. This causes bizarre situations when committees have to evaluate candidates for a faculty position, or when they have to decide who gets the grant.

Online, the amount of attention each page gets is easily quantified, though. You can display google pageRank for each page you visit (that little green bar in the google toolbar, if you installed it in your browser). Google pageRank is an approximation to how ‘worthy of attention’ a page is.  Our previous post on soft peer review capitalizes on this idea: one can measure how much attention an idea is getting (in the form of a paper) by using citations (classical, slow) or bookmarks in sites such as citeUlike or Connoctea (new, yet to be fully used, fast, dynamic).

But if attention works as currency, and attention can be measured -if only approximately-… How can we calculate a Return of Investment (ROI) for our attention (or an approximation thereof)? I don’t think I have a good answer; citations and google pagerank are the most obvious answers, but I think you will agree that there’s more to it that just those.

A rational agent should maximize the amount of attention that her work would get. That is, for each hour of your work time, how much attention are you getting?

Then, the economics concept of investment works too: there are some activities that can lead to quick publications, while other are more long-term. Publish-or-die policy enforces results, and then many researchers are discouraged to pursue ‘big ideas’ (that are a long-term investment). They must be riskier too, so the changes of getting no ROI (no publication after a lot of work) are high. What is the right balance between high-risk, high-yield activities (you know which ones those are in your field!) and the off-the-mill paper-churning ideas that get you by? What’s your ‘saving power’? Can you afford to ‘spend’ attention on big ideas? Are you starved, and you really need to pump up the short-term?

These are interesting questions that came out of the initial assumptions: (1) Attention is the scarce resource. (2) The academia’s currency, prestige, is attention (fossilized attention according to Graham), (3) Attention can be measured, if only approximatedly, and then (4) you can calculate and ROI for your attention investments.

Let me know if you find this approach useful.

Thanks for your attention :)

-Jose Quesada

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10 Responses to “Attention economy: ROI for your attention”

  1. Kevin McCurleyNo Gravatar Says:

    You mentioned that
    “The problem is that prestige doesn’t have all the same
    properties as money. It cannot be quantified, for once.”
    I recently wrote a paper about the attention economy in which I mentioned that “reputation is to attention as wealth is to income”. (see ). It’s interesting to note that wealth is also more difficult to measure than income, since we typically hold large portions of our wealth in illiquid assets such as our house, retirement fund, life insurance, etc. In order to quantify something, you have to convert it into a unit of common exchange, but when an asset cannot be easily converted, it is inherently difficult to quantify.

    It’s an interesting question to ask what the ROI is on an investment of attention, but this holds true for both the consumer and producer of attention. Advertisers depend upon being able to convert attention into other currencies. Readers depend upon being able to convert attention into something that makes a difference in their life (e.g., entertainment, monetary value, etc). Both have issues in determining a return on investment.

  2. darioNo Gravatar Says:

    Man you’ve been busy writing, I’m reading you over the weekend!

  3. JasonNo Gravatar Says:

    Good post.

    Bill Sternberg and Todd Lubart (writing well before the phrase “attention economy” was the new hotness) forwarded a similar idea to what you discuss here. In their “investment theory of creativity,” they suggest that creative people “buy low and sell high” in the realm of ideas, investing time and energy into improving, combining, and then publicizing interesting-but-unpopular ideas. As the ideas gain acceptance, they recoup their investment. I think it’s a useful perspective, and has affected the way I think about academic production.

  4. Jonathan Says:

    It is interesting to note your very analytical sense of time invested. However, I wanted to point out a comment you made: “What is the right balance between high-risk, high-yield activities (you know which ones those are in your field!) and the off-the-mill paper-churning ideas that get you by?” I believe everyone has a natural gauge of what activities are required to get by, however so many of the great academics (Einstein is a prime example), were seemingly not as concerned with this concept of resource allocation. Many solely focused on their high risk and high yield time investments. I guess just like in a traditional stock portfolio, one has to analyze their own risk assessment and “diversify” with activities accordingly.

  5. Academic Productivity » The failure of open science Says:

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  6. B. Rene WilliamsNo Gravatar Says:

    I agree that we allocate too much attention on small decisions and not enough on the big ones. This is one of the problems with our society – we are expected to be perfect, and only hear from some people – bosses, creditors, family – when something is wrong or there has been a perceived slight. We don’t get enough praise for what we do right. So we never know what conduct of ours is going to come back and embarrass or bite us next. Amidst a society that focuses on the negative, things get blurred and it’s hard to prioritize.

  7. Devin WillisNo Gravatar Says:

    I loved your analytical approach !

    Devin Willis

  8. NLP PractitionerNo Gravatar Says:

    I agree, there is too much focus (attention) on negativity. We should focus on the positive more as a society for best results

  9. Says:

    Came across your post while googling the current state of our economy. Though its an old posting I still found it to be a very interesting read :)

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