The Psychology and Brain Biology of “Whatever”

Why some people could care less.

Posted Jul 03, 2017

Source: hidesy/iStockphoto

Have you ever wondered why some people seem to care so much while others just don’t? Are you perhaps one of those people who is having a “whatever” day? Recent research sheds light on why you may feel disinclined to care and what you can do about this.

Focus eats up brain glucose: While there are many reasons for this, one often overlooked reason relates to being overworked. Called self-regulation depletion (SRD), this condition occurs when people spend so much time focusing on getting things done, that their brains simply do not have the energy to care.

In 2008, social psychologist C. Nathan Dewall and his colleagues asked two groups of people to watch a video. One group watched the video with intent focus, while the other group watched the video as one normally would. After the video, they were asked to help a victim of a recent tragedy.

The group that focused intently couldn’t care less, whereas the other group showed much greater effort in trying to help the victims. When the focused group was given glucose, their attitudes changed, and they started to become helpful. This indicated that their unwillingness to help was not intrinsic—wanting to help requires brain energy and with SRD this energy is simply not there.

To properly control your attention, you need to build unfocus time into your day. This helps to recycle your attention and gives you the balance you need to care about what is happening around you.

Focus causes blinker vision: In January of 1995, the Boston police department got a radio call that an officer had been shot, and four black suspects were fleeing by car. More than 20 cruisers participated in the chase. The first officer to chase the fleeing suspects was an undercover policeman named Michael Cox. Being black and not in policeman clothes, Cox was mistaken for one of the fleeing suspects, and a group of cops went after him, hitting him in the head and beating him continuously.

While this was happening, another police offer named Kenneth Conley spotted one of the suspects and went after him. In his fervent pursuit of the suspect, he drove straight past the Cox beating and did not stop to intervene. Although the officers eventually recognized their error, they disappeared into the night.

When Conley was questioned about what happened, he denied seeing anything. He was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice and sentenced to 34 months in prison. The people investigating the case believed that he was simply protecting the other officers. They did not believe that he could truly not have seen something.

In 2011, research psychologist Christopher Chabris and his colleagues decided to test whether this could in fact be true. They set up an experiment in which they simulated the scene in which Conley drove by the beating. At night, as in the Conley situation, only 35 percent of people noticed the fight. During the day, 56 percent of people noticed. As they increased the amount they had to attend to, they noticed less and less.

Another study showed that nobody is spared from this bias. Even people who are generally smarter and sharper would miss this. And yet another study showed that even if you are looking at something right next to such an incident, you could easily miss what was happening. That’s also why in sport, sometimes, it appears that people are not aware of what is happening around them.

Called inattentional blindness, this kind of focus simply consumes your peripheral vision. You have none, so you see nothing.

Psychology researcher Carina Kreitz and her colleagues examined who might be susceptible to this kind of blindness. They found that people who might notice the beating have a distinct personality difference from those who don’t. They examined five different personality dimensions: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Of these different dimensions, openness to experience was the only factor that was associated with not being blind.

When you have this trait, you are generally someone who is curious and imaginative. Also, you are someone who spends time unfocused, giving the unfocus circuit in your brain a chance to do what it needs to. Many people do not build this into their days, but they should, especially if they want to see beyond their noses and take in what is truly happening in life.

Focus makes you think of yourself as an island: Although certain people claim to have no needs from others, research shows that this is probably a defense. Everybody has a need to belong. When social psychologist Mauricio Carvallo and his colleague examined what apparently dismissive people felt, they found that they felt better about themselves and in general when they learned that other people accepted them. They also felt better about themselves when they learned that they would be successful in interactions with others relative to doing better on their own. 

Focus can make your world smaller, and as a result, you think you don’t need anybody or anything. But learning to unfocus will help you see yourself in context in the world.

The next time someone says “whatever” to you, consider the following: their brains may be depleted, they don’t see the situation for what it is, or they are wrapped up in their own cocoons, unable to feel connected to the world. If this someone happens to be you, remember to build unfocus times into your day. Not only will it help you focus better, but it will connect you to the world and help you feel included in a way that will enhance your meaning and purpose in life.

To read more about how focus can restrict your life and how to build unfocus into your days, get a copy of my latest book voted one of 50 best books for the beach this summer by Coastal Living: Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind

More Posts