Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Ads Everywhere: The Race To Grab Your Brain

Finding reprieve from the constant demand for your attention.

In early 2011 I heard an NPR "On The Media" story about the future of video gaming. Now, I'm not a big gamer; I can handle Mario but if a game requires shooting or strategy it's pretty much a lost cause. Yet the implications of the NPR story were far reaching and both cautionary and optimistic. In response, I wrote the following blog which went on to be one of Psychology Today's "Essential Reads" in May 2011. I'm reprinting it today in the midst of the barage of campaign advertistements that are desperately grasping for our attention and driving some of us crazy...

The NPR "On The Media" interview: "The Future of Gaming"

One of that show's guests, Jesse Schell, said this about the future of gaming and it's influence on society: "So many people are going to be competing for our attention. I often think of it this way: The 21st century is going to be a war on the attention of humanity. Where civilization focuses its attention, I mean, that's what defines what the civilization cares about."

We've seen the momentum of this competition growing over recent decades, especially the increase in advertisements and campaign ads everywhere we look or listen. A 2007 New York Times article reports that "Yankelovich, a market research firm, estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with up to 5,000 today. About half the 4,110 people surveyed last spring by Yankelovich said they thought marketing and advertising today was out of control."

In the five years since that article, the dramatic increase in smart phone and portable electronics usage keeps us constantly connected and allows advertisements to follow us everywhere we go. Each one with a convincing argument as to why we need to spend our money and our time with them rather than their competitor. Always at our heels or attached to our waists – begging for our attention.

In the NPR piece, professional gamers speculated on how this electronic connection, in the form of gaming, will eventually cross over into our daily lives. We are already seeing real-life ads in fantasy-life video games. Gamers speculate about a future where we will each be rewarded on a national point system for viewing ads or doing the right thing out in the community. Yet perhaps it will be a future where video game players will band together to solve real global problems with the same intensity that currently unites them in fantasy worlds. Turning our electronics obsession into a platform for positive social change.

The future of gaming is speculatory, but the race for our attention is real and now. We are not just experiencing it as consumers but probably contributing to it as wage earners. If you own, sell, provide, offer, practice, make, or grow, chances are you rely on people's attention to make a living. And let's be fair, aren't I competing for your attention at this very moment? Thanks for looking!

Short of joining an indigenous tribe, a monastery, or otherwise living off the grid, it's our new and growing reality. Even the smallest towns have their billboards, junk mail, telemarketers, and robo-calls. I strongly believe we must all find ways to give our minds and bodies a rest from time to time, otherwise risk information and sensory overload. In fact, research has shown that this rise in the hyper-media blinking, beeping, and buzzing can be linked to an increase in anxiety, increase in attention problems, and decrease in mood. I don't think we need research to show it – in this election cycle many of us are feeling it first-hand.

What does this all mean to you? Does it feel overwhelming or do you feel like you've adapted to the new reality? Perhaps over the next few days you can try being conscious of the ways in which people are racing to grab your attention – text messages, commercials, product placements, political propoganda, and horn honks.

Then think about what you can do to get some reprieve. Sleep? Yes, many of us feel desperate for it just to escape the brain drain of our days. But what can you do during your waking hours to give your eyes and mind a rest? Can you challenge yourself to go out into nature without looking at your phone? Do you have any white space left in your environment where you can rest your eyes from the ads and your ears from the buzz? Can you clear even five minutes in your day to put your head down, be mindful of the present moment, and wipe the slate clean? It's now widely known and proven that mindfulness, meditation, or any sort of silent retreat is highly beneficial for our health.

Our health and wellness is our individual responsibility and we must not allow it to be hijacked by the noise that surrounds us. Today, and every day, make some space to pause from the race.

More from Brad Waters
More from Psychology Today